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The empire strikes back
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SEVERAL THINGS came to mind the other night at the District One and Two City Council candidate forum at St. John Baptist Church on Hartridge Street — a lovely and welcoming sanctuary, by the way, if you’ve never been there.

For an event that was billed as having high fireworks potential — given the marquee grudge match of Ruel Joyner vs. Van Johnson and the undercard of Gretchen Ernest vs. Mary Osborne — the turnout was pretty low.

Maybe Thursday night was a bad night. Maybe the forum’s sponsor, the NAACP, didn’t do a good enough job marketing it.

Maybe people are just debated and forumed out. It’s possible that these events, now as ubiquitous as “Frasier” reruns, have become as grueling for the voters as they are the candidates.

Or it could be the nightmare scenario, the one I’ve been nervously anticipating in the pit of my gut for months:

Maybe people really don’t care that much about these City elections that are supposedly so pivotal.

Don’t get me wrong — I think they are pivotal, as does almost every other local political observer. But I’m not breaking any news when I tell you that what the media thinks and what other people think are often miles apart.

I once assumed the prospect of Sunday retail alcohol sales would be an additional galvanizing push to get people to the polls, but maybe I was wrong there too.

All candidates at the forum — I didn’t mention the engaging Tonia Miller, who is running alongside Joyner and Johnson for District 1 — were either against Sunday sales or didn’t take a stand at all.

Whether that was because they were sitting a few feet away from a Baptist church pulpit and suffered a sudden lack of nerve, I don’t know. But the challengers are all on the record as opposing Sunday sales, while incumbents Johnson and Osborne both said the referendum is up to the voters and they’ll respect the will of the people.

That’s a pretty slick answer, but probably also the correct one.

In sports you say “This team’s been here before” in weighing who’ll win a playoff or championship game. Same with elections.

Johnson and Osborne, whatever you think of the job they’ve done, have “been here before.” This plays out in the details, such as the fact that the challengers all read their opening statements, while the incumbents didn’t use notes and spoke directly to the crowd.

One of the core motivations of the local “throw the bums out” movement — of which, full disclosure, I consider myself a member — is that the business community has had enough of the City’s antagonistic attitude toward small business and the regulatory nightmare it conjures for anyone foolish enough to try and open a new business within City limits.

Over the years I’ve spoken with dozens of small business owners in Savannah who recall through clenched teeth the months of belligerence, capriciousness, corruption, and blatant favoritism displayed by City inspectors and bureaucrats, who all seem to have a different set of rules and never talk to each other.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to entrepreneurs from other areas of the country who, shaking their heads, say things like “I’ve never seen it this bad anywhere else. I can’t believe people here put up with it.”

Indeed, it’s a miracle that anyone bothers to open a business on this “Creative Coast” at all — I certainly wouldn’t counsel anyone to do it — and a testament to the true grit of those entrepreneurs who do survive the gauntlet of fire and manage to open their doors (only to have to deal with this awful economy).

But if you need any more proof that Savannah is about to collectively throw away a brilliant opportunity to effect real change, look no further than the endorsements of the Savannah Area Business Political Action Committee (SABPAC), a group that raises money for, in their words, “pro–business candidates in local elections.”

Read ‘em and weep:

SABPAC endorses every single Council incumbent, as well as Edna Jackson, a current incumbent running for mayor.

(For the record, here’s who they like in the other open seat races: Carol Bell, Tom Bordeaux, and Greg Hagins.)

You could say that former City Manager Michael Brown was the real author of the City’s anti–business stance — or at minimum, was too tolerant of the career bureaucrats heading the permitting departments — and you’d probably be right.

But there’s no question that the current incumbents on City Council, who have hire/fire authority over any City Manager, played their own role in creating the current toxic climate.

And the local “pro–business” group — essentially the political wing of the Chamber of Commerce — is endorsing them all?

Folks, that in a nutshell is why Savannah is so screwed up.

And that’s why odds are that this November’s elections — despite the hype — will probably bring more of the same.

But it’s all up to you. Early voting is going on now through Nov. 4. The election is Nov. 8.

Prove me wrong!