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July 18 - EDITORIAL: A Clumsy Attempt at Gag Order(s) by Savannah City Manager

July 18, 2011 EDITORIAL:  A Clumsy Attempt at Gag Order(s) by Savannah City Manager

Savannah City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney handed out two unartful memos last Thursday just before the start of the Council's regular public 2:00 p.m. meeting that call her judgment into question and can be termed nothing less than gag orders for City employees.

Small-Toney surprised council members, both with the content of the memos and her threats about the future employment of Police Chief Willie Lovett if he gives another interview to the media without talking with her first – particularly if he dares to disagree with the decisions of her office or the City Council.

The Savannah Morning News ran a story on Tuesday, July 12, where the Chief stated his opinion on the condition of various police facilities, including the headquarters currently undergoing renovations. Lovett is frustrated that the city leaders cannot find a building to buy to move his department’s headquarters, and is again wasting thousands of dollars to try to keep rain out of the headquarters on Oglethorpe Avenue versus making a decision on moving. The department also cannot stop the growth of mold at two other precinct facilities and has to move patrolmen into the Civic Center temporarily due to health concerns.

Small-Toney said that if Lovott ‘did it again, it will be his job.’ Her comments and anger were supported by Mayor Otis Johnston, who said, in effect, that when he was on the City Council, members would have not dared to disagree with city policies. “It reflects poorly on this Council,” was the Mayor’s opinion.

Also quoted in the story was City Alderman Mary Osborne who expressed her frustration with city leadership about a new precinct facility promised for years that has not been built. She, apparently, also did not tell Small-Toney that she had expressed her opinion to the media.

Attempts to determine how the story came about have been unsuccessful, but is a relevant question to ponder.  With the Morning News' former publisher Julian Miller serving in the role as the Police Chief's director of public affairs, did he pitch the story to the paper to help the Chief achieve his goals?  Calls to the reporter on the story were not returned.  The paper's Managing Editor said he "would not comment," and directed us to Stacy Jennings, the paper's marketing director. Jennings said she would make attempts to get us an answer, but so far we don't have a response. Did the reporter just drive by headquarters, see repair trucks, and ask what was going on and develop the story on her own? It could happen.

Small-Toney's first memo was directed at the council members themselves, asking them to inform her if they decide to talk to the media… “because that also serves as an indication that there is a media interest in an issue that all of the Council should be aware of…”

The memo was unartful, clumsy, unrealistic and unprofessional. A skilled leader would have spoken to individual members to build better relationships, and encourage them to give her a ‘heads up’ if something big was brewing. 

But far worse was her written memo to “Bureau Chiefs, Department Heads, Administrative Staff,” dated the same day and given to the City Council. The subject was “Notification of City Council on Matters of Media Interest.” To begin with, the subject was inaccurate - it wasn’t the City Council asking for notification…it was her, made clear in her comments on the record during the session.

The memo to the City’s employees states that it was a “reminder to you of the protocol that is to be used in contacting my office when a media inquiry or contact has been made with you personally or within your work area,” which is ridiculous on the face of it. The local media calls department heads and other employees every day of the week to do our job - the police, fire, MPC, Dept of Public Works, City Clerk and on and on.

Putting this memo in writing, particularly when coupled with her public threats to remove Lovett if he talks to the media again about his opinion of something in his department, creates an implicit threat to every employee that works for the city that if she does not approve of what they tell us, they can be fired.

It’s a walking lawsuit.

The Savannah City Council, the City Manager, and City Hall in general needs more transparency, not less, and all are ill-served by attempts to gag individuals and squelch information by a City Manager who has yet to demonstrate her ability to run the city under Savannah’s “strong city manager” form of government.

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Published by: The Savannah Business Journal.

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