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Searching for a city manager
Has misinformation derailed the chances of popular support for any of the candidates?
The candidates at last week's public forum; Mayor Johnson is at the podium

Savannah is a city with a history of messy politics, but over the past 10 days, there's been more than the usual share of suspicion, misinformation and fear concerning the future of city management.

Savannah's search for a city manager has become such a disaster that government officials nearly 1,000 miles away in Columbia, Mo., heard about it and have begun to question the information they were provided on candidates. The city of about 110,000 is also currently searching for a City Manager using the firm Affion Public.

An article from last week's Columbia Daily Tribune quoted 6th District Alderman Tony Thomas as saying, "I am just not very comfortable with the process and not very comfortable with the search Affion did for us."

Two days earlier, Thomas and Alderman-at-Large Jeff Felser were central voices in a Savannah Morning News article outlining concerns about the four remaining candidates for Savannah's city manager position.

"I believe the company did not do their due diligence," Felser told writer Lesley Conn.

This narrative was nothing new. In the 2005 search for a police chief, Michael Berkow was hired and within weeks council discovered he had pending lawsuits for professional misconduct - a piece of information that hadn't been shared with members of City Council or the Chatham County Commission. There were calls for a GBI investigation that never got off the ground.

This time around, however, the perceived failure to disclose pertinent background information on candidates, which some community members ascribed to not-so-secret intentions of council members to install an African American City Manager and others blamed squarely on the failure of the search firm, Affion Public, are the result of misinformation.

That information wasn't included in candidate bios distributed to the media or the public, but members of City Council were informed by Affion CEO Scott Reilly at a Dec. 17 meeting.

"The newspaper printed an article that Affion did not make the council aware of the fact that [Wayne Cauthen] was unemployed. That was not true," says Larry Stuber, 3rd District Alderman. "Every single person was advised by Affion on that one issue that he had parted company with Kansas City."

"The information might have been a surprise to the public, but we were presented these candidates before when we had to pare them down," says Van Johnson, 1st District Alderman.

"We did our due diligence," says Affion Public CEO Scott Reilly. "We provided that info."

Stuber and Reilly spoke about the firm's methodology and the scope of their search and is satisfied that the company did its job correctly.

"I asked questions of the guy Scott Reilly and I'm satisfied," Stuber explains. "They did a national search and they produced national grade candidates."

In the brochure advertising the available city manager position, which was created by Affion after meetings with the mayor and council, there are several paragraphs of qualifications in the "Ideal Candidate" section.

The skill set includes being "fiscally conservative," "dynamic and visionary," and able to "demonstrate knowledge of and familiarity with innovative funding and financial sources in order to assist the city with current and future economic development projects."

Near the bottom of the document: The ideal candidate must also have "experience serving a racially diverse population and have a genuine interest in becoming a part of the community," and "have a desire to help alleviate poverty in the community and have experience with poverty reduction efforts."

According to Reilly, the source of the "acrimony" stems largely from the need for experience with poverty reduction.

"That has been one of the big differentiators in terms of looking at candidates that have had experience dealing with that," he explains. "I've heard people say ‘we've got candidates with a checkered past,' but that's because they're working in difficult communities... Poverty reduction is difficult."

Although critics have questioned specifically including poverty reduction rather than just economic development (which was also mentioned in the candidate brochure), Reilly sees them as very different skill sets.

"Poverty reduction is more about education and workforce development," he says. "Economic development is typically about driving business in your community... Poverty reduction can't be done without economic development, but economic development can be done without poverty reduction."

In total, Affion received 80 resumes from applicants across the country, and they tried to recruit others, many of whom turned down the opportunity.

One circumstance that significantly impacted the field of candidates, is the fact that the city is in an election year.

"As a city manager, you're looking and saying, I could get hired this year and have nine new bosses by the end of this year," says Reilly, explaining some feedback he heard from potential candidates who didn't want to be considered.

Because the city manager is hired and fired by mayor and council, the potential for a change in elected officials leaves many candidates too uncertain to leave current positions.

The average tenure of a city manager in a city with a population of more than 100,000 is only about 3-5 years because changes in administration often lead to changes in management.

Wayne Cauthen was removed from his position in Kansas City, Mo., after the election of a new mayor, Mark Funkhouser, who had been a former city employee and a candidate for the manager position along with Cauthen.

Similarly, although much attention locally was given to the departure of Pat DiGiovanni from his position as city manager of Kalamazoo, Mich., that included allegations of creating "racial tension," little attention was given to the fact that up to that point, he was the longest serving manager in that city's history by several years.

The mayor pointed out during last week's public meeting in the Coastal Georgia Center that Savannah is unique in its experience with city management. Savannah had two managers, Don Mendonza and Michael Brown, who held the reigns for over three decades combined - more than half the time Savannah has had a manager system in place - a total anomaly in municipal government.

"Obviously some of the aldermen want someone with spic ‘n span backgrounds - never being terminated, never having any sorts of issues - but in the world of city managers, it's extremely difficult because of the nature of that beast," says Van Johnson.

Last week's public meeting, which offered the public a chance to meet and ask questions of the four finalists, was unique in the history of the city.

"Never has anything like this been held," Mayor Otis Johnson told the audience during his introductory remarks.

The crowd, which numbered close to 300, came prepared with questions for the potential future managers, and most (but not all) of those questions were grounded firmly in discussions of policies relevant to the future of the city.

"It was such a diverse group. It showed me people were really engaged and really interested in this process," says Van Johnson.

After getting the chance to question each candidate, attendees were able to submit comments for each. Those have been collected and given to members of council, along with other notes offered by senior staff members who also met individually with the candidates.

Once City Council has had a chance to review all the documents, they will further reduce the field of candidates.

"We'll do our due diligence to further investigate their backgrounds and do site visits to their respective cities, reference checking and other applicable checks," says Van Johnson. "Then, from there, we'll determine if we can get consensus on a candidate."

"In my opinion, there are qualified candidates in that pool," says Stuber. "We're going to get the best, most qualified candidate we can find."

Barring additional delays, council expects the new city manager to be named by March.