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City Manager search, Downtowner app trigger debates at City Council
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The search for a new Savannah City Manager took a twist at today's City Council meeting — the second full meeting of the new Mayor and Council.

An agenda item to award the search contract to the consultant firm The Mercer Group was questioned by Alderwoman Kesha Gibson-Carter, who objected granting the contract "without us [Council] having an opportunity to own that process."

Mayor Van Johnson responded that "the quicker we're able to get a permanent City Manager on board, the quicker it solves many issues" the city faces.

There's a time crunch involved, as interim City Manager Pat Monaghan has said he would like to leave the position by this May.

Other Council opinion was split. Alderwoman Linda Wilder Bryan said Council will still get the final say: "For the sake of time I'd like to see this move forward."

Alderwoman Alicia Blakely said she wants the City to "start anew" with the search process, and discussed what she said were rumors that certain other local officials secretly wanted the job.

Alderman Nick Palumbo's motion to give the Mercer Group the contract failed. This meant Council could either choose to re-evaluate the four firms that had already passed the bid process — including the Mercer Group — or start the entire process over from square one.

Alderman Kurtis Purtee's motion for Council to reconsider the award between the four already-qualifying search firms did indeed pass.

Another much-discussed item concerned the annual award of $588,000 to the Downtowner app/rideshare firm, which contracts with the City to give free rides in the downtown area.

While the service is intended for service industry workers to safely and inexpensively get to and from work, anyone, including tourists, can download and use the app from the Florida-based company.

Alderwoman Blakely questioned why a much lower bidder, Chatham Area Transit, (CAT) didn't get the contract.

Parking and Mobility Services Director Sean Brandon replied that CAT's bid was contingent on developing an app with a third party vendor, whereas Downtowner already had its app.

Also, Brandon said, "CAT shuts down at midnight," while the Downtowner "really ramps up between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m."

Brandon said that while "I'd love to eventually work with CAT on this," the local transit system is simply unprepared at this point to deliver the service.

Brandon said that since this past May, the Downtowner has served 54,000 clients, with about 34,000 separate pooled rides, at an average cost of $17.29 per ride.

Alderman Palumbo defended the contract, saying "parking downtown is an ongoing issue, and it's extraordinarily expensive" for service industry workers.

With the price of the creation of a single garage space coming in at about $30,000, Palumbo said "we could only get roughly 20 spaces for the cost of this contract that services 54,000 people. It provides an effective service for residents and working people."

However, in the end City Council decided to continue month-to-month with Downtowner to give Council time over the next few weeks to meet with Chatham Area Transit in an attempt to gauge CAT's interest and ability to make a serious effort to take over the service.