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Who's on first? How Savannah's government (supposedly) works

THE City of Savannah uses what’s called a Council/Manager form of government, where the City Council is elected by the citizens, and Council appoints a City Manager to run most day-to-day operations.

Think of the City Manager like a CEO appointed by a Board of Directors.

A City alderman or alderwoman, aka member of Council:

• works on city matters like zoning

• serves on committees that work on larger projects

• levies taxes and ordinances

• adopts the budget

• appoints the City Manager

The City Manager:

• carries out the policies and programs established by Council

• recommends the annual budget and work programs

• appoints bureau and department heads

• exercises general supervision and control over city employees

The City Manager can only be removed by City Council.

While the Mayor of Savannah is paid $57,000 a year and the other members of Council only $25,000, the Mayor actually doesn’t have much more power than the rest of Council.

Some observers say the Mayor is essentially a glorified alderman, presiding over Council meetings and making ceremonial appearances.

There are six aldermen in the City of Savannah, one for each district, as well as two aldermen at-large. An alderman at-large represents the whole City electorate rather than just within their district.

So, this election you’ll be voting for the alderman for your district—which you can find on your voter registration card—as well as for two aldermen at-large and for the mayor.

The City didn’t always have a City Manager. Until 1954, we had what’s called a “Strong Mayor” form of municipal government, in which the Mayor has much wider powers.

In the early ‘50s, public and state displeasure with the notorious corruption of local political boss Johnny Bouhan prompted a change in the City charter, over to the current Council/Manager system.

The first Savannah Mayor to serve in the new Council/Manager system was Lee Mingledorff. At that time the number of City aldermen was reduced from 12 to the current number.

While our form of government is sometimes called a “Weak Mayor” system, that isn’t always historically accurate. Some Savannah Mayors, most notably Mayor John Rousakis and Mayor Malcolm Maclean, wielded near-total power even under the Council/Manager system.

Our sometimes-rival to the north, Charleston S.C., went in the other direction, and adopted a Strong Mayor form of government over 40 years ago, with a single person — Joe Riley — occupying that seat nearly the entire time since then, until 2016.