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Challenge 2015: Joe Steffen, Alderman At Large Post 2

IN HIS day job, Joseph "Joe" Steffen serves as counsel for Savannah State University. In addition, the Virginia native has been active in a multitude of local nonprofits and community service programs, including the charitable foundation Liam’s Land, which Joe and his wife Janet named after their young son, forming it to address the rare disease of childhood lymphatic malformation.

He joins a very crowded field for the Council seat vacated by Tom Bordeaux.

Joe, you’ve been around local politics for years. Why did you only now decide to get involved by running yourself?

There’s been a lack of strategic planning and leadership to allow local law enforcement to fall into such disarray, and to continue to have a third of our children living in poverty. It’s a demonstration that we’re adrift.

This is a wonderful and magical city and I love it, and I hate seeing it go in the direction we’re going. I’m certainly not campaigning against any one individual or group. Collectively we need to change.

Some on Council are finally getting it now through the course of this election. Some are still shocked. Some are shocked that they go around town and people are criticizing them so much. Where have you been? Who have you been listening to?

It goes back to the fact that you have to get out of the bubble and you have to listen to all of Savannah. Unfortunately when they’ve been there awhile they get a bubble of supporters, the people who hang around City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce crowd. If you just listen to them you’re not going to get the whole picture.

There are some people on Council that do get it, but there’s a clear majority that seems adrift.

In and of itself the fairground purchase isn’t really that big a deal, but it seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In and of itself as you said, it’s not that big a deal. What it demonstrates is that we have a complete and utter lack of planning. The fact that you’d spend any amount of money without knowing exactly what you’re going to do with it seems an abrogation of the role of Council. I’ve had a lot of community meetings, and particularly in the Fifth District folks there are terrified, not because the City bought the property but because don’t know what’s going in there.

That’s another thing I’ve been communicating: If we continue to allow developers and bankers to dictate to Council what happens with these kinds of development, the community itself might not be too happy with it.

They really need input from stakeholders—and that’s not just taxpayers, but anybody that resides close to that piece of property. They all should have a voice.

The other issue the fairground purchase raises is if we’re so critically short in law enforcement, how did they find $3 million to buy it when they can’t seem to find money to pay retention and recruitment bonuses to police officers.

For example, if we were 20 officers short and had an accelerated issue of people leaving us in a short time, Council could say collectively, hey, this caught us off guard, we didn’t know this was going to happen. But when you have over 100 officers short going on for 3-4 years now, for City Council to say we didn’t know or didn’t realize it is crazy.

I don’t know that people appreciate how critical that shortage is and the impact it has. Take the drive-by on Bull and Oglethorpe. People want to say the problem is where it happened. The problem is not so much where, but when, in the middle of the day, and in front of numerous witnesses.

That tells me folks in the criminal element just don’t believe they have anything to fear anymore.

How would you advise addressing the shortage?

We have to be careful not to just throw money at recruitment. It’s not just about recruiting bonuses and more officers. That’s less than half the problem.

The real problem is retention. We lose good officers to other localities and to private business. We’re losing them because of salary compression, because of modular pay, because we’re not offering them the proper tools to do their job. We have to pay at least as much attention to existing officers as to new ones.

Look, we’ve got plenty of money in the City of Savannah. It’s not a secret. We’ve got a great tax base, we’ve got a great budget, we’ve got great bonding capacity. But we’re going to start losing all that if we don’t get this situation under control.

All that leads us to the big question: Keep City Manager Stephanie Cutter or let her go?

We have a world-class city and we need a world-class city manager. I’ve frankly not had enough interaction with Stephanie Cutter personally to make that determination yet. I do think I could make that determination very rapidly.

She benefits from the fact that she is so much better than what we had before. People are willing to look at her and say, she’s not Rochelle Small-Toney so she must be really good. And she is a step up.

Whether or not Stephanie Cutter has the skills to strategically plan the way the citizens of Savannah need her to, I’m not convinced of that. But it wouldn’t take me long to figure that out.

Speaking of that, I’m one of few people in this race that works at the pleasure of the person I work for. Dr. Dozier at Savannah State could come into my office one morning and say, “Joe, you’re gone.”

People need to realize Cutter is in the same situation: She works at the pleasure of City Council. That’s Council’s most critical role: To supervise her and make sure they have the right person in the right job.

But in fairness I’m certainly not going to say fire her on day one.

All the candidates are talking about crime and the police, but you are also focusing very heavily on addressing the stubborn poverty rate.

I’ll be very blunt. Whether I win or lose is going to depend on whether or not people are really concerned about that issue. No one in my race has offered any solutions to poverty. I’ve put together a five-point plan. Some of it has been controversial.

But I’ve lived here 17 years and the poverty needle hasn’t budged one bit. We need to try some different things.

All the money spent on SPLOST contracts, we must require in those contracts that companies do three things. One, continue to hire locally. Secondly, pay a living wage to everyone they hire. Thirdly, properly classify employees, not try to get around it with independent contractors.

We’ve got the leverage to control quite a bit of what goes on. If we’re successful you’ll see an increased demand for labor and force others to increase salaries to compete.

The other point is to change the way we recruit new businesses. As it stands we rely solely on existing businesses to recruit their competition. That’s a bizarre way of doing things. You don’t have your star freshman running back sent out to recruit the next year’s star running back.

I’m not suggesting existing industry doesn’t have a role. I’m just saying it’s another tool for SEDA.

I’m not trying to denigrate or criticize SEDA. They do a good job at working with retention of existing businesses. They’re just not well-positioned to be the recruiting arm for new businesses.

And what’s to brag about when we just continue to lose out on jobs that bring living wages to Savannah?

Particularly when you’re trying to attract international firms, you can’t just send over your good ol’ boy elite. They don’t do it that way in Jacksonville, or South Carolina, or most other places around country.

Pat Shay’s name comes up a lot as symbolic of the cozy connections between politically connected people and resulting big contracts paid by the taxpayers. Is that corruption to you? Or it is just unavoidable in a city this small?

Both. It is unavoidable that relationships matter in Savannah. I want to put a big spotlight on the fact that one of my competitors has raised $110,000 from bankers and developers, and if you want to know who’s going to have a seat at the table if he’s elected, take a look at that.

You’re referring to Brian Foster.

Yes. This isn’t a criticism of Brian as an individual. His heart’s in the right place.

But Brian’s worldview is so embedded in that establishment elite mode that it’s very, very difficult for him to try to represent all of Savannah.

I don’t fault Brian for raising money. But to raise that much money for a position that pays $22,000 a year? That’s a little bizarre. Do you think somebody isn’t expecting something out of that?

I think it’s an obscene amount of money to raise for an alderman at large.

Cut to the chase: How can a white guy like you really address issues of poverty here, which so disproportionately impacts African Americans?

I have a unique background. My full time job is at a historically black university. I’ve spent my entire career in Savannah working for agencies that work in all of our community. I was asked to be one of two non-black members of 100 Black Men of Savannah. When I go speak at black majority churches in Savannah, it isn’t my first time there.

Now of course that doesn’t change my ethnicity. All it says is I’ve had a chance to interact in all of Savannah as opposed to just the white business community.

When I say my campaign slogan is One Savannah, that’s not just a clever slogan. It’s how I view the world. Maybe some folks aren’t ready for that. And they probably won’t vote for me on either side of the equation.

I’m very conscious of the fact that issues of race and ethnicity have a long history in Savannah. I try and live my life in such a way that we can move beyond that.