Excuse me, Madame Mayor. Tom Bordeaux reached over here, butt me in my head and called me an asshole.
—Alderwoman Mary Osborne, during the May 29 City Council meeting
YOU’VE PROBABLY already seen the video, but in any case it never gets old.
During last week’s very long, very contentious, and very important City Council meeting—more on the actual substance later—Council members Tom Bordeaux and Mary Osborne remained on the opposite sides of an issue.
Bordeaux leaned in to whisper something to Osborne, possibly involving the word “asshole,” and Osborne apparently leaned toward him at the same time.
Boom! Instant internet gold.
Osborne leapt out of her Council chair, wagged her arms and began complaining loudly to Mayor Edna Jackson: “Did you see that man what he just did?” and accusing Bordeaux of calling her that profane name.
The mayor did her best to defuse the surreal incident.
To say the video contributes to the idea of City Council meetings as a laughingstock amateur hour is an understatement. Such juvenile shenanigans are entertaining—especially to those of us predisposed to consider most politicians as unqualified, self-important buffoons —but obviously should have no place in governance.
The aggravating part is not only that these are supposed to be our “leaders,” but also that they so often show so little shame in their behavior—behavior which would get you and I fired in a heartbeat.
Still, there’s such a thing as too easy a target. Criticizing City Council for the outsized, often cartoonish personalities of its members is like shooting fish in a barrel.
So I’d like to focus on something else.
I’d like to focus on what caused the Bordeaux vs. Osborne kerfuffle in the first place.
I’d like to focus on “that man what he just did.”
Except I don’t mean Tom Bordeaux. I mean Richard Kessler.
Richard Kessler is the head of the development group that bears his name, which has done an admirable job with both the Bohemian and Mansion on Forsyth hotels.
Both projects are undeniably responsible and tasteful upgrades to Savannah’s tourist infrastructure. My most sincere kudos.
Awhile back, Kessler Enterprises bought the lot containing the decommissioned electric power plant on River Street, which had been a scary, shadowy sentinel over the west end of the promenade for years.
The plan is to build a new hotel there. But not just any hotel.
A hotel which will double the current height allowance for buildings in that part of the protected, preserved, and precious Historic Landmark District.
The same Historic Landmark District which is the whole reason all those people come to Savannah to stay in hotels.
Currently, buildings west of the old power plant are allowed to be three stories high, those to the east (including the parcel on which the plant sits) limited to two.
The requested “variance”—surely stretching the limits of that word’s definition—would allow for six stories and four stories, respectively.
The disingenuous legal conceit on which the request rests: That the decrepit power plant is six stories tall and is itself in conflict with the height allowance.
Agreeing with the Historic Savannah Foundation, the Historic Review Board, and the Downtown Neighborhood Association, the staff of the Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC) recommended that MPC members vote not to accept the requested “text amendment” (though they did recommend a less-ambitious one).
In a Nixon-goes-to-China moment, even speaking out against the proposal was local architect Patrick Shay, who recently supported an extraordinary height “variance” of his own on a new hotel project he’s associated with on the other end of River Street.
(To be fair, that variance isn’t as ambitious as the Kessler request.)
But the MPC members went against staff recommendation, voting to allow the full height request anyway.
When the matter went to City Council, Bordeaux was one of only two votes, along with Mary Ellen Sprague, against the proposal. His frustration clearly got the better of him.
As usual, the determining factor was the supposed lure of new jobs—a claimed 800 new jobs, in the case of the new Kessler hotel. (Sounds a bit high, doesn’t it?)
The question that always goes unasked is: Does Savannah really need to encourage more service jobs at this point?
Is the bigger issue doing more to support the tourist industry, or doing more to educate and enhance our workforce so that more non-tourism industries, paying higher wages, will want to locate here?
To be clear, there’s a lot of support in the community for the new Kessler hotel. Reasonable people can disagree about the project, and about the level of progress that Savannah should or shouldn’t aspire to.
But to my mind, the issue isn’t jobs. The issue is standards, and standards of fairness.
The whole point of having standards is to adhere to them. When you grant one developer an extraordinary, unique exemption, you open the door for others to demand, and get, similar treatment.
Worse yet, you actively reward those who thumb their nose at what we’ve already decided and stated is important to us.
As local realtor and one-time mayoral candidate Dickie Mopper said about Kessler: “He knew the height limitation when he bought the property 15 months ago.”
Did you see that man what he just did?
From Ben Carter to Richard Kessler, there is clearly something close to a feeding frenzy for developers in Savannah, as the fog of the great recession lifts.
They’re here, quite simply, to make as much money as we’ll let them make.
Perhaps when these developers see the circus that our City Council often devolves into, they’re encouraged not to take our elected officials very seriously.
Perhaps when these developers see how quick we are to trade away our age-old formula for success in exchange for a few more service jobs, they’re encouraged not to take our standards very seriously.
Our elected officials need to actually use the great powers they do have, on our behalf, to protect the very thing that makes Savannah so special and desirable to visit, and in which to live.
I personally don’t care if they have to fight and bicker like spoiled children to do it.
As long as they do it.