What did final city manager vote tell us?

In advance of Thursday’s vote by Savannah City Council to accept City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney’s resignation, the Savannah Morning News editorial page called on aldermen to make the vote a decisive 9-0 one:

If Small-Toney doesn’t resign, then Mayor Edna Jackson will find herself entertaining a motion Thursday to fire the city manager. It’s going to pass. Jackson has the votes. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have asked for Small-Toney’s walking papers a week ago as the price for the city manager’s continued failing performance.

The only question is the margin.

Here’s what the split should be: 9-0. This is one time the entire council must stand together, for its own sake and the sake of the city for the next three years.

A 6-3 vote will get the job done, of course. The conventional wisdom breaks those numbers down this way: The mayor, Mayor Pro Tem Van Johnson and council members Carol Bell, Tom Bordeaux, Mary Ellen Sprague and Tony Thomas voting for termination, with council members John Hall, Mary Osborne and Estella Shabazz opposing.

But some major decisions should go down with an overwhelming mandate. This is one of them. It would show unity and stability at a time when City Hall is on vibrate.

And another editorial on Thursday:

Today’s vote, assuming it comes, should be 9-0 to accept Ms. Small-Toney’s resignation. Then it’s time to heal, move on and do the public’s business.

After the vote, yet another editorial characterized the three “no” votes this way:

As far as Ms. Small-Toney’s resignation is concerned, it’s disappointing that City Council didn’t accept it unanimously Thursday and stand together. The “no” votes cast by council members John Hall, Mary Osborne and Estella Shabazz were slaps at the mayor and the city.

Fortunately, their votes didn’t matter. The mayor had a majority to make a needed change, fix what’s broken at City Hall and begin to repair the damage.

Credit council members Carol Bell, Tom Bordeaux, Van Johnson, Mary Ellen Sprague and Tony Thomas for backing her up and representing the best interests of the entire community.

Let me take a contrarian view on this whole business of unanimity.

If I had been on council, I would certainly have been voting to accept Small-Toney’s resignation and would have been among those behind the scenes in recent weeks to hasten her exit.

Any lingering support I had for Small-Toney collapsed completely with her decision to divert existing new arena funds to funds for repairs on our existing one. See A new arena for Savannah — should we just throw in the towel? for some of my reasoning.

I think Aldermen Hall, Shabazz, and Osborne made a mistake in continuing to support Small-Toney to the bitter end and to vote not to accept her resignation. I hope they will pay a political price with their constituents, but that’s not up to me — it’s up to their constituents!

All three of those elected citywide — the mayor and both aldermen-at-large — were prepared to fire Small-Toney if necessary, and so were three council members with vastly different districts.

But this is a democracy, and if three members’ consciences tell them to vote one way, they should do it. If they thought Small-Toney deserved more time or if they thought the reasons were not sufficient for dismissal, they should have made that clear — and they did make it clear.

And there are some good signals for many residents in seeing such an open rift among the six black members of council. We tend put a lot of issues in black and white in this town — both literally and figuratively — but no groups are monolithic. No groups consist of members who all agree, and they shouldn’t all agree.

Just like we have in the past lauded our city managers too much, we also have gotten way too hung up on the idea of unanimity. One of the worst council votes taken in recent years — the one to ban 18-20 year-old adults from most live music venues — was unanimous.

Once unanimity itself becomes a goal, we’ve opened the door to groupthink, to ignoring questions, to unsophisticated policy debate.

Mayor Edna Jackson has done a great job the last couple of weeks. She knew she didn’t need unanimity. And she probably knew she wasn’t going to get it. So there was no sense worrying about it or waiting on it. Just assemble a clear majority and forge ahead.

As we move into the process of looking for a permanent city manager, there are going to be lots of disagreements among council members. We might even eventually choose a new city manager on a divided vote.

Nothing wrong with that. Maybe a city manager chosen by a divided council will be especially aware of the need for bridge-building, conciliation, and humility.