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EDITORIAL: The Censure of the Statements of Alderman Tony Thomas is Appropriate by City Council

Category: Editorial & Opinion

May 31, 2017 - Alderman Tony Thomas has earned censure by his peers on the Savannah City Council for making vulgar and sexist remarks to a female reporter, captured on TV footage last week.  A vote will be considered by that body at a special called meeting of the Council at 5:00 p.m. today. 

Mayor Eddie DeLoach has proposed that Thomas be censured, stating at a Tuesday morning press conference that Thomas “left me no other choice.”   Alderman Thomas was also publicly drunk and passed out during the St. Patrick’s Day festivities, behavior that was widely publicized on social media, and a cause of embarrassment for many on the Council.      

Thomas had a choice last week to conduct himself with dignity, in keeping with his oath of office, and to treat a women in an appropriate manner, even in a moment of stress. 

No one forced him to call a female reporter from WTOC the “c” word,  a term he used to denigrate her, because she and Senior Reporter David Klugh, along with a cameraman, showed up at his home.  They were pursuing a news tip about unattended cats, and a complaint filed with the County's Animal Control office.  They were also asking him questions about his home being set for a public auction sale on June 6. 

They observed Thomas removing boxes from his home. The status of his legal residence is a valid question for journalists just doing their job, in light of the legal advertising that indicates that Thomas has lost his home to foreclosure by a local bank that has now advertised the auction.   Thomas denied that he is moving; states he still lives there - which would be technically true until June 6 - and denies that his home was lost to foreclosure.    

Yesterday, Thomas wrote his version of the facts of the encounter in his yard last week, wriing on his public 'Alderman Tony Thomas' Facebook page.  He acknowledges the incident occurred, and says he ordered them off his property - that they violated his rights.  He does not deny the words he used, and in an interview with another TV station yesterday, says he stands by what he said, and does not apologize for anything that he said. 

In which case … he just doesn’t get the larger picture. 

Yes, Thomas had the right to ask reporters from WTOC, who were standing on his driveway, to get off his property.  But, it is not acceptable for him,  or anyone else, to use the terms he used to confront a woman, and his actions meet the litmus test of when censure is appropriate under Chatham County’s new censure laws.   

In the 2016 session of the General Assembly – based on the reaction to incidents that involved County Commissioners Dean Kicklighter and Yusef Shabazz in 2015 - the Georgia General Assembly unanimously passed three bills that now allow the Savannah City Council, the Chatham County Commission and the Savannah-Chatham School Board to censure their members.

The legislation gave all of the local taxing authorities power to censure members if 100 percent of the board members agree, excluding the censured member. Censure doesn’t come with penalties or fines, but it does allow governing boards to publicly shame a misbehaving member and put it on permanent record.   All eight members of the Chatham County Delegation signed off on the bills. 

At the time, Rep. Mickey Stephens (D) said,  “I voted for it because it’s better to have and not need than need and not have, and they needed it over the last several months … We seem to have some people on the city, county and school board that don’t have self-control and I don’t need to name any names either.”

In 2015, County Commissioner Dean Kicklighter plead guilty to DUI and was sentenced to 40 hours of community service, 12 months of probation and $996 in fines and fees, but never censured.   And, then  Shabazz was found guilty of reckless driving, and was sentenced to 12 months of probation and fined.

Censuring gives elected officials a way to officially comment on behavior of an elected peer that they find unacceptable, a charge that Thomas has faced before.  In 2015, Alderman Thomas elected to write sexist and derogatory comments about two women on his public Facebook page, women who supported his political opponent in the 2015 municipal elections.  

In that incident, Debra Kajawa and Karen Thompson, on advice of legal counsel, pursued an Ethics Violation complaint against Thomas; it was ultimately unsuccessful because  an independent panel found that his actions did not rise to the level of violating the ‘ethics’ of his office as defined by the Charter of the City of Savannah. 

Most recently, in October 2016, three elected members of the Chatham County Board of Elections voted to censure fellow member Debbie Rauers, the board’s fourth elected member, based on comments she had made in a public setting that they believed cast doubt on the credibility of the Board of Elections. The Chairman of the Board of Elections is the official spokesperson for the body.   It is a tool to be used.  

In summary, Alderman Tony Thomas has earned a vote of the censuring of his behavior by his fellow members of the Savannah City Council, because the opposite of censuring him is to say in effect … what he said is okay.

And, then the votes can decide in 2019 whether they, too, intend to censure him out of office.   

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