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Reprimanding the reprimander
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"We're dying of suicide from the inside." - Alderman and Mayor Pro Tem Van Johnson

"I can't be accountable if I don't know about it." - City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney

LAST WEEK was a week of big surprises. But the biggest was saved for last. As everyone else commenced with their Labor Day weekend, and as we put the finishing touches on this week's print edition, Savannah City Council actually put in some overtime.

They accomplished, however briefly, something I was beginning to think they would never do in a million years:
Reprimand City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney.

A cynic - which I've been accused of being on more than one occasion - might say it was just window dressing, a simple case of collective ass-covering from a City Council which, at long last, was tired of being a laughingstock and just wanted to do something to stop the bleeding.

But I've learned to take small victories where and when I can get them. However motivated by embarrassment rather than principle council's reprimand of Small-Toney may have been, the fact is they did it.

They finally reprimanded the reprimander.

Successive debacles originating in the City Manager's office -- which I believe were on the verge of making national news -- rocked City Hall in rapid succession over the past few days: Alarming spending habits and internal accounting methods; now-terminated emergency management director Ben Johnson fudging his resume worse than a college football coach (and with a salary to match!); and a city purchasing department that, to put it charitably, is totally effed up.

So this past Friday, after another meeting in which the city manager took just enough responsibility to appear contrite but still pawned the problems off on subordinates -- her chief modus operandi -- City Council took the rare step, for them, of calling into question their own judgment in hiring Small-Toney in the first place.

A baby step, to be sure. For whatever reason, most members of city council still feel the need to tip-toe around Small-Toney, as if she hired them instead of the other way around.

Of course it's entirely possible that this ends in the way to which we've become accustomed: Small-Toney continuing to be a one-woman force of nature -- up-ending the entire city structure with little regard to established rules, or indeed even her own rules -- and City Council finally throwing a whole crap ton of taxpayer money at her to make her go away.

Throwing good money after bad is the Savannah way, and the smart money is still on that as the likely endgame, however long it might take to play out.

To be totally blunt about it: There's still plenty of time for City Council to screw this up even worse.

That said, a turning point has been reached. Even Mayor Edna Jackson, as non-confrontational a person and leader as you're likely to find, has clearly had enough of the constant bad news coming out of her city manager's office. A couple of times during Friday's meeting, she openly differed with things Small-Toney said.

That doesn't sound like much, but for Mayor Jackson it's a big step forward. And like I said, I'll take small victories.

I don't for a second think this signals a total paradigm shift. Savannah's city charter specifically makes our city manager a virtual autocrat, no matter who occupies the office.

Technically the job answers to City Council, but of course the charter ensures that even the mayor of Savannah is only one vote out of nine.

In that way and that way only, I do feel for City Council in this regard: They have little individual power and at least have to go through the motions of being accountable to the voters every few years.

But the job of Savannah city manager is a professional technocrat's dream: They claim power and expertise beyond the elected officials which appoint them, and, like blue chip athletes, they have airtight, lawyered-up contracts which guarantee them a golden parachute on the way out, no matter how badly they screw things up.

Then they leave town for the next gig, and the next gullible bunch of small-time politicians who'll rubber-stamp whatever contract that's put in front of them.

There's an entire industry in this country that trains and develops people for these high-level public administration positions, whether they be Small-Toney, former City Manager Michael Brown, or any number of school superintendents current and former.

Unlike the departed Mr. Ben Johnson, I imagine a few of them might even have legitimate degrees!

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of Savannah being a laughingstock known for its political circus.

I'm tired of seeing exorbitantly highly paid appointees do a bad job and then leave town with even more bags of taxpayer loot.

The buck has to stop somewhere, and for now at least, kudos to Mayor Jackson and City Council for finally acknowledging that it stops with them.