Letter to the Editor

Mayor Otis Johnson
Mayor Otis Johnson

Last week there was a public discussion between City Council and the City Manager about comments the Police Chief made to the Savannah Morning News concerning conditions at Police facilities. Much has been said about that discussion, and I wanted to take a moment to comment on the situation.

First and foremost: There is no animosity or ill will between the City Manager and Chief of Police, and there never has been. In fact, it is this City Manager that negotiated and ushered the support for the Chief’s contract. He is a valued public servant in our community and a key member of the City’s Leadership Team.

Public safety – being safe and feeling safe anywhere in the City – has long been this Council’s top priority. This means that the first money allocated in the annual budget is directed toward public safety spending. The Mayor and Aldermen expect above all else the City organization to be developing programs that protect our citizens, visitors, homes and businesses.

Implementation of programs that meet Council’s priorities rests squarely on the shoulders of the City Manager, whom Council hires as its Chief Executive Officer. The City Manager, in turn, hires and manages the Police Chief, along with eight other Chiefs whose Bureaus comprise the entire City Organization (the others are Fire; Water Resources; Sanitation; Management Services; Community and Economic Development; Public Facilities, Events and Services; Finance; and Information Technology).

This is the essence of the Council-Manager form of government: City Council holding the City Manager accountable for meeting its priorities, the City Manager holding the nine Bureau Chiefs accountable for creating work plans to meet measurable goals, and the Bureau Chiefs holding their employees accountable for carrying those plans out.

During last week’s Council meeting, this system of accountability was put on public display, and was unfortunately mischaracterized by some in the media and community at large. The Police Chief made comments to the Savannah Morning News about conditions at Police Headquarters, as well as the Downtown Precinct. While those conditions are real, the story portrayed the City as being non-responsive to Police facility needs.

Caught off guard was Mayor and Council, who correctly pointed out they had never turned down a Public Safety funding request. We turned to our City Manager.

Protocol is clear: If Bureau Chiefs have a need, they must work with the City Manager to meet that need. That’s how things get done. Earlier this year a need was identified to make improvements in the Police Chief’s suite of offices to accommodate personnel additions, add a new conference room, and make other changes.

Design work on the estimated $180,000 project was put out to bid in February; construction bids are due mid-August. Design work for a roof replacement project at Headquarters began in June, and should be complete next week. Construction will begin two months after the contract is awarded by Council.

Repairs, however, will only get us so far – we are in need of new, modern facilities. Our professional Police force deserves that. The Police Chief and City Manager have worked with Council to budget $21.1 million for Police building projects. This includes a new Police Headquarters, which we are actively looking to find a suitable property for, and a new Precinct building, which has been designed and will be built once we can relocate the existing tenants at the proposed site.

Another longtime protocol: If the City is going to make news, the City Manager needs to know about it. All Bureau Chiefs are highly trained professionals, and as experts in their fields are encouraged by the City Manager to communicate with the public. None of them needs to ask permission to do so. But when the City makes news, citizens call their elected officials. Bureau Chiefs must brief their City Manager, so she can keep City Council updated on matters of public interest.

The City Manager and Police Chief continue to have a positive, productive relationship. By working together, Savannah is safer than it has been in recent history. While the crime escalation over the past few weeks is alarming and must be addressed head on, Part I crime numbers are 20 percent below what they were in 2008, and are at the lowest level in four decades.

We are in the thick of a new budget process, and already the City Manager and Bureau Chiefs have been working on an operating and capital plan for 2012. Open, candid conversations are taking place every day about what we can afford, and what we can’t.

The goal is to present to Council the strongest budget proposal possible based on sound information and using Council priorities as a guide. This is how work gets done. And this is how the City of Savannah will continue to operate.

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