IRONICALLY, the candidacy of Ruel Joyner to represent the First District on City Council may be even more important now that he’s been told he’s no longer eligible to run.
The effort by the City of Savannah to throw him off the ballot — despite the Chatham County Board of Elections’ OK — shows in stark relief the lengths to which the local establishment is willing to go to keep their political machine rolling.
“One great thing coming out of all this is people are now paying attention to how Savannah is really run,” Joyner tells me.
Late last Friday — just in time for the weekend — Joyner got word his candidacy had been denied because of a citizen’s challenge to his eligibility.
The key thing is who did the denying: The Clerk of Council. The same council that Joyner’s opponent, current First District Alderman Van Johnson, sits on.
Fox, meet henhouse. Henhouse, fox.
Leaving aside the inherent conflict of interest in having a council employee run municipal elections, the way Joyner was shut out is instructive in its blatant nature.
Joyner’s business is at 24 East Broughton Street, in a building his family has owned for decades. Joyner claims a small apartment above the store as his residence; the challenge claims he doesn’t live there at all.
Joyner has been open with the county Board of Elections about the whole issue.
“I laid all my cards on the table. They wanted to see my driver’s license. It’s shown 24 East Broughton for years. Next they wanted to know where I get my bills. The majority, if not all, of my bills go to 24 East Broughton. I changed my voter registration to 24 East Broughton,” he says.
“Probably the one thing constant in my life has been 24 East Broughton Street.”
But the Clerk of Council saw things differently, Joyner says, presenting a list of 21 objections to his candidacy.
(Knowing the City’s penchant for over–the–top displays of power, I’m surprised they didn’t just go ahead and add three more so it would match his address).
Interestingly, Joyner says he was asked if he’d ever voted in a City election — not a requirement and in any case irrelevant.
“I think they were hoping they’d catch me in a lie if I said yes. Whatever obstacle that could have been thrown in front of me was,” Joyner says.
“I’m not angry at anyone. It just became obvious that they decided the sky was just too blue for me to run for council.”
You could say that Joyner, a white downtown business owner, stood little chance to defeat an African American incumbent in a 75 percent African American district.
You could say that Joyner calling an apartment above his store his home is a stretch in terms of bona fide residency.
You could say he should have opted to go for one of the open Alderman–at–Large posts instead of taking on Van Johnson.
You could say all’s fair in love and war — and as it’s been said, war is simply politics by other means.
But you could also say that residency rules were bent a full 180 degrees for another council incumbent, Edna Jackson, now running for mayor.
Jackson owns a house on Walthour Road on Wilmington Island. I grew up around the corner from Walthour Road. It ain’t in the City of Savannah. Not even close.
For ten years, Jackson’s homestead exemption was there rather than another house in City limits she said she lived in.
A Savannah Morning News story from 2001 — interestingly, written by none other than Bret Bell, who not long thereafter was hired as City of Savannah spokesperson — chalked it all up to a “records glitch.”
A separate Morning News editorial from the time defending Jackson said she “has her driver’s license and utility bills to prove she lives on Fernwood Court, according to Clerk of Council Dyane (sic) Reese.”
Dyanne Reese is the same Clerk of Council who rejected Joyner’s candidacy — for which he also provided a driver’s license and utility bills to show he lived in the district.
In another irony, Joyner says the Board of Elections told him the biggest problem they usually see is with — wait for it! — homestead exemptions. So they asked him where his exemption is.
“I don’t even have one,” Joyner says. “I’ve never filed one. I guess that’s kind of stupid, because it’s cost me a lot of money.”
You’ll recall that Joyner was for the most part originally prompted to run by the controversy surrounding the hiring of Rochelle Small–Toney as City Manager.
Small–Toney doesn’t live in Savannah. She lives in unincorporated Southbridge.
By City charter Small–Toney actually has more power than Joyner, Johnson, and Jackson combined, whether alderman or mayor.
Small–Toney totally runs the City of Savannah, and she doesn’t even live there.
Will the last person inside City limits turn out the lights before they leave?
As we’ve seen so often with this City government, there’s one set of rules for “the team,” and another set of rules for you and me and change agents like Ruel Joyner.
In this country, the benefit of the doubt goes to democracy. If someone wants to vote or run for office, you have to show clear and convincing evidence why they shouldn’t.
Since the Jim Crow years, that’s been the deal. People fought and died for this to be the case, and I shouldn’t have to lecture anyone about that at this point.
But Joyner stresses that he doesn’t think the City throwing him off the ballot is motivated by race.
“Nothing they’re doing is a racial issue,” he says. “It’s just good old–fashioned greed. In a sense that’s a good thing, because at least we can all move forward from that.”
Joyner is appealing the City’s decision to Chatham County Superior Court.
“The whole thing’s out of my control now, but I’m not going to back down,” he says.