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Government vs. the people
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We are at another of Savannah's infrequent civic crossroads. The level of public unrest here is more than I can remember at any time since 1991, when longtime Mayor John Rousakis was ousted from office after his ineffectual response to a string of particularly ugly gang-related murders.

While the administration that replaced his was eminently forgettable - notable only for featuring the city's first woman mayor - the sudden, almost brutal nature of Rousakis's electoral overthrow was remarkable. It was a testament to what can happen in a democracy when the last straw finally breaks the camel's back.

Due to a steady stream of almost comically over-the-top abuses by local government, we're near that level of civil dissatisfaction now. And against a backdrop of continued economic downturn, the abuses have taken on an almost Dickensian malice.

Exorbitant jaywalking tickets in one area of the city - and nowhere else - comprise only the most egregious example.
Another, somewhat less well-known, is the city's jihad against music clubs downtown through a bogus "noise ordinance" which is so draconian that the ambient street sound of the city itself is in violation.

This cartoonish arrogance is not exclusive to city government. Your county commission is doing its best to catch up with City Hall.

The latest evidence is their recent party-line vote to charge residents in unincorporated Chatham County nearly $100 per year extra for bulk waste removal - a job already funded through existing property taxes.

Stunningly, the commission is simultaneously considering paying a million dollars in bonuses to county employees. A lot of good people work for the county, but taxpayer-funded agencies should get a bonus only after the private sector is back on its feet and itself able to give out bonuses again.

Also on the tax front: Local homeowners still reeling from last year's round of assessments received some relief from the state legislature's recent property tax freeze. But meanwhile, your county tax assessors have made it clear that when the provision sunsets in two years they'll begin making up for lost time.

This kind of naked money-grubbing will only get worse as the economic downturn continues. What are you going to do - sell your house and leave? Not bloody likely.

Make no mistake: These are not clueless simpletons you're dealing with. Your city aldermen, county commissioners, and their associated managers and appointees and bureaucrats are by and large very intelligent people.

I'll go so far as to say that many of them are truly brilliant - some of the smartest people in town, actually. Certainly smarter than most local journalists.

They know what they're voting for and what they're implementing every step of the way. To think otherwise, to chalk it all up to incompetence, is to do both them and yourself a disservice.

Simply put, times have changed since 1991. Unlike the shady backroom operators of years past, this bunch operates out in the open. They sincerely believe they're doing the right thing.

That is what makes them truly dangerous.

Nowhere was this more evident than with the headline on a police press release last week announcing that a car struck another pedestrian downtown:

"Still Think We're Being Too Strict?"

That was the actual headline on the press release. You paid for that.

Not "Pedestrian Injured in Accident."

Not even "Police Urge Continued Awareness of Pedestrian Safety Issues."

Just "Still Think We're Being Too Strict?"

It's a small thing, but it sums up the state of mind of local government and bureaucracy these days. It's a curious combination of overweening arrogance, adolescent self-absorption, and feather-light sensitivity.

That's not an attractive combination in a person you're dating, and it's definitely not attractive in a large taxpayer-funded entity that sports a whole bunch of guns and tasers.

The other thing that makes local officials so dangerous today is that they no longer fear the ballot box. They're smart and they've done the math, and the numbers show there aren't enough taxpaying homeowners and small business owners left in Chatham County to sway an at-large election.

Therefore, it will be homeowners and small business owners - and of course the tourists - who will be forced to pay the jaywalking tickets and noise violations and property taxes and fee increases and "revenue enhancements," etc., etc., ad infinitum.

My ears perked up during the last couple of elections when many members of both the city council and the county commission kept talking about "running as a team." I'd never heard of such foolishness before.

Why would a voter want to have a "team" representing them? A political party, certainly, but a "team?" At the time, it made no sense.

Well, now we see what they meant by "running as a team." They meant it literally.

They meant their team against your team. Government against the people.

You can't say they lied about it - it was their campaign slogan.

Oh, we can do a few things to show disapproval, to make ourselves feel better. Gather signatures, talk before City Council for sixty seconds before being told to sit down, make cute YouTube videos, stage "tea parties" on River Street, go to happy hour with other interesting, hip creative class people. This will accomplish little else but blow off some steam and perhaps slightly amuse the people you're trying to influence.

No, in my observation there's only one thing left that city and county bureaucracies actually still fear: A lawsuit.

The one thing that bothers them, the one thing that pushes them off their well-honed game for even a few minutes, is the prospect of having their dirty laundry aired before a judge and jury, disrupting their spreadsheets and bonuses and their precious municipal credit ratings.

At this point I don't know what other recourse there is for local property taxpayers and business owners, since their votes are simply not numerous enough to matter in the campaigns that matter.

Until the aggrieved parties can muster their increasingly meager resources and take serious, and I emphasize the word "serious," legal action on a number of fronts, they will continue to be little more than modern-day serfs, bound to the land and taxed into oblivion - albeit with Blackberries and flatscreens.

It's going to require pooling of resources, it's going to require real cooperation, and it's going to require courage. Three very tall orders. Anyone up to it?