Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson has asked City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney to resign

Moments ago, after Savannah City Council returned from a lengthy executive session, Mayor Edna Jackson stated publicly that on Tuesday she asked Savannah City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney to resign.

I’m unclear at the moment whether that resignation was actually tendered, although I’m assuming it was. Mayor Jackson stated that no official actions could be taken at this specially called meeting today. Regrettably, the meeting is ending with some angry and irrational comments from community members who are bringing up some old, old, old news.

I was among those who did not think Small-Toney was the most qualified of the four finalists for the city manager position. But that didn’t necessarily mean that she wasn’t qualified — and I thought it entirely possible that she would be able to do the job just fine. I was more than willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

But my own support for her has been steadily eroding for a variety of reasons, and collapsed entirely with her decision on Monday to ask the mayor and council to divert almost all the remaining $19 million earmarked for a new arena to renovations of our existing one. I wrote a long post (A new arena for Savannah — should we just throw in the towel?) critiquing that decision, which — to quote a friend of mine — would be like putting a bandaid (a really, really expensive one) on a broken leg (one that will never heal).

Small-Toney also turned out to have a terrible ear for dealing with the press and for understanding the political realities of her position, which was made all the more tenuous by the divisive process through which she was hired. Those problems were compounded by her hiring and then ardent defense of an emergency management director whose resume contained false information, her own questionable handling of travel expenses, a huge mess in the purchasing department that resulted in late payments, and the sudden pulling of an RFP for the new cultural arts center after a number of local firms had spent tens of thousands of dollars preparing their bids.

I’ll add that I never was reassured that Small-Toney understands zoning issues, the peculiar problems of maintaining an historic downtown, or the importance of good city planning generally.

Neither Pat DiGiovanni nor Wayne Cauthen made it to the final round in the selection process for a new city manager last year, but both brought clear strengths to the table. Yes, both had been pushed out of top positions previously, but that’s par for the course among experienced city managers, many of whom eventually lose the support of the elected officials who have hired them.

From my profile last year of Wayne Cauthen:

For the sheer length of his career in public positions, Wayne Cauthen is obviously a serious contender. He has credible experience in business development in the Denver area dating back to the 1980s and also worked in a variety of high-level city posts in Denver. He was also city manager in Kansas City from 2003 to 2009, when he was pushed out by elected officials.

I’ve already read numerous derogatory remarks by Savannahians about Cauthen’s departure from Kansas City — things like: “we don’t want a reject from somewhere else!”

OK, take a deep breath. A city manager is like a top-level coach or a corporate CEO. These folks come and go all the time — some have successful tenures for years before being pushed out, and then go on to success in other positions.

Kansas City is much, much larger than Savannah. It has about 1/2 million residents compared to our 130,000 or so, and the Kansas City metro area is about 2 million compared to our total of less than 400,000. If Cauthen was city manager for six years there, clearly he has some administrative skills. [. . .] Kansas City is a big city, with a pro football team, a symphony, a professional ballet company (I knew several members of it many years ago), and other major attractions. In this glowing column from 2010 in the Kansas City Star, Cauthen reflects on a number of successes there, including preservation, the building of an arena, and the establishment of the Power & Light District.

From my profile of Pat DiGiovanni:

Pat DiGiovanni has been the deputy city manager in San Antonio since 2006. With 1.4 milllion people, San Antonio is one of the largest cities in the country — ten times the size of Savannah. The metro area of over 2 million is almost seven times the size of our metro area. The city is about 60% Hispanic, while Savannah is close to 60% black. I think it’s fair to say that DiGiovanni has spent the last four years working in a large, complex, multi-ethnic city, which seems like an obvious plus.

Lots of search hits come up for the other finalists because of their most recent experience is as a city manager. As a deputy, DiGiovanni is not in the news as much since he has been in San Antonio, although his name is attached to a number of firm but conciliatory statements.

I’m not saying that either of those candidates would have necessarily been perfect fits here either, but they clearly brought credible experience.

Instead of hiring a city manager with strong backgrounds like those, then-Mayor Otis Johnson and the rest of council took a chance on Small-Toney, whom they had gotten to know pretty well in her work as assistant city manager and then as interim city manager. But there was little that I could see to suggest that she would make a good CEO — not a major cog in the bureaucracy but the one on top who has to work with all the city staff, the elected officials, the public, and the press.

It has seemed pretty obvious in recent weeks that Small-Toney’s shortcomings have increasingly alienated members of council. Aldermen Hall, Osborne, and Shabazz voted against going into executive session today, so the city manager still might have had three solid supporters. [Update: Of course, it’s equally likely that they wanted to have a lengthier public comment period before the executive session rather than waiting until after it.]

But the Savannah city council is made up of nine members, not three. And Small-Toney was obviously unable to adjust her management style to keep at least four five of them satisfied.