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Sept. 28 - EDITORIAL: Setting the City's Legislative Priorities Needs an Earlier Process that Truly Engages Council & Public

Category: Editorial & Opinion

September 28, 2017 - City Manager Rob Hernandez is a busy man. It’s annual budget time - a budget that he says will be "his budget," this year, versus last when he had just arrived on Oct. 10 in the midst of a hurricane, and was faced with two days of budget hearings set for early November. 

He’s in the middle of unraveling the city’s police assets and personnel from the formerly merged department with Chatham County, and insuring someone will answer the phone when you call 911 - negotiating for what services will still be shared with Chatham County in 2018.  

And, the City is moving forward with creating its own Municipal Court - more to come on that soon - further extricating themselves from shared institutions with the county government. 

So, it’s a good time to pile on. 

It’s time to choose a new lobbying firm, and get going on setting the Mayor and City Council’s legislative priorities for the upcoming General Assembly session that starts the first week of January.  And, we'd like to see at least one session where the public could react to those goals. The RFP for that contract closed Sept. 5.

October through December is the best time of the year to start to draft legislation and to do the research to be well-armed to move a bill through the session - not once the session is already underway. In the fall, our delegation members are starting to get focused once again, and are not as overwhelmed as during the session when they're running back and forth to Atlanta while trying to maintain their jobs and companies.

And, the legislative priorities should be set to dovetail with the city’s long-term goals which are embodied in the operating plan and operating budget. Possible legislation could even be part of the two-day budget process. 

The contract for the City’s paid lobbyist contract was put out to bid in early August. Jim Burgess has served the City since at least 2006. He was hired when Floyd Adams was Mayor. 

Sources say that Rep. Ron Stephens, who chairs the Chatham County Delegation, has set the meetings with the City Council and Chatham County Commission for around Dec. 7 to hear their priorities.  He’s currently on a long-term cruise on his yacht, after a safari trip to Africa this summer.   Some would argue that for our delegation to really have time to draft legislation, the City and County should be working with the delegation much earlier than that. 

We're hearing the names of firms being bandied about who have so far expressed interest, including Joe Tanner & Associates out of Atlanta, considered by many to be the most influential lobbying firm in Georgia. A source states that their representative on the ground would be in association with Amy Hughes of Savannah, long time local lobbyist.  Her clients have included companies such as Kessler & Associates. But, Ms. Hughes also attended the meeting independently of Joe Tanner & Associates' rep, as did Lee Hughes, her husband.  

Also putting in their name is Jean McRae, wife of lobbyist Mike Vaquer, who operates independently as Jean McRae and Associates, a dba sole proprietor – no LLC or INC.  She would be in partnership with Capital Affairs out of Atlanta, she states.  Ms. McRae has been a registered lobbyist in Georgia since 2006, reporting her lobbying activities separately from her husband with the State's Ethics Commission.  

And, we’ve confirmed that ConnectSouth, led by Tony Simon, has submitted his firm’s name.  That firm is partnered with the large Southern lobbying company Capital Resources, with offices in multiple states and DC.  

There was an awkward Council Workshop last year in December where a two or three page document was passed around with a long list of "priorities" on it, the first time that most on Council had seen it. The City's lobbyist Burgess was in the room, telling them to pick five.  He argued that they needed to prioritize their efforts at the Capital. 

A city the size of Savannah needs representation at the State House.  It would be a great step forward for Hernandez to work with all the Council members this year earlier, and in an organized process that includes some public input, developing their legislative priorities far earlier than we’ve seen happening the last few years. 

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