MAYOR OTIS Johnson’s face was set in stone, the only indication of his agitation the constant rocking of his chair.
The setting was the Dec. 18 city council meeting, the last of the year, and certainly the most contentious so far. The mayor and aldermen argued about nearly everything on the agenda, and the tension nearly got to the breaking point at one juncture.
By far the most arguing concerned a motion to approve a travel policy for the mayor and aldermen. In early November, the mayor, Alderwoman Edna Jackson and Alderman Van Johnson traveled to China as part of a group that included City Manager Michael Brown. They were roundly criticized because they scheduled the trip without the knowledge of the rest of the council, and the ensuing argument has gone on since October.
The travel budget requires aldermen to obtain permission for out-of-town travel in advance. It also requires that the mayor provide quarterly updates on the travel budget.
The cost of the China trip was estimated at $17,472, but came in at $29,337. Worse, the council’s 2008 travel budget was set at $77,500, but expenses actually came to $100,453.
All council members can attend conventions and training with the National League of Cities and the Georgia Municipal Association on the taxpayers’ dime. Yet some aldermen do a lot more traveling than others.
The new policy was drafted by aldermen Johnson, Tony Thomas and Larry Stuber. Their recommendations include: trips made on behalf of the city by the mayor and aldermen be reported in advance; international travel and sister city agreements must be approved by resolution; and the council should reach consensus on who will represent the mayor when he cannot represent the city.
“It’s a good policy,” Thomas said. “It may not be perfect, but nothing in this world is perfect.”
The mayor was concerned about someone being chosen to represent him. Jackson is Mayor Pro Tem, and represents the mayor when he’s out of town. “If the council can’t reach a consensus, what is the fallback position when I cannot be there?” he asked.
Alderman Johnson also said he wasn’t in agreement with that part of the policy. “We should have some latitude in deciding who represents the mayor,” he said. “I don’t think we can reach a consensus all the time. It creates another level of bureaucracy. I asked the city attorney to add the words ‘when practical’ to that.”
“This is a $283 million-dollar-a-year company,” Thomas said. “Not having a travel policy in place is reckless.”
Thomas said Jackson spent 18.3 percent of the 2008 travel budget, followed by the mayor at 15.6 percent, Alderman Johnson at 14.1 percent, Alderwoman Mary Osborne at 12.7 percent and Thomas at 12.6 percent. At the lower end of the list were Alderman Cliffton Jones at 8.9 percent, Stuber at 7.9 percent, Alderwoman Mary Ellen Sprague at 5.4 percent and Alderman Jeff Felser at 4.3 percent.
“I challenge anyone to add up the numbers submitted by the mayor,” Thomas said. “We spent 30 percent more than we planned to spend.”
The mayor said when asked to represent the city, he will do so, no matter what the travel policy says. “I was elected to represent the city,” he said. “You can’t by law limit what I am responsible to do as mayor.”
“We are all elected representatives of the city,” Thomas replied. “You have a budget like the rest of us do.”
Last month, Jackson was elected to the League of Cities’ board of directors, which requires her to do a considerable amount of traveling. In most cities, having an alderwoman on that board would be an honor, she said.
“There are members on this council who aren’t serving on any boards whatsoever or going to conferences,” she said. “That’s their choice. We need to move on and move forward.”
Felser took exception to Jackson’s remark about council members not serving on boards, saying many serve on boards and committees in Savannah that don’t require them to travel or spend city money. “You’ve been to China twice on the taxpayers’ dollar, which is absurd,” he told Jackson. “I serve on two boards and I take offense when you say some of us choose not to serve on boards.
“This whole discussion is a tragedy,” Felser said, adding that the mayor left one meeting early because of dissension among the ranks. “It’s just not the way I was raised.”
Felser said budget decisions made in the past haven’t been equitable. “When I asked about getting business cards, I was told the line item had run out,” he said. “Then I was told about all the printing of business cards in Chinese for the 10-day trip.
“The one trip I asked for was turned down by the both the mayor and city manager, and I was told to find a sponsor,” Felser says.
At one point, Osborne told the mayor the council wouldn’t be having the travel policy discussion if he hadn’t left a meeting early, then began crying. “This has been very, very stressful for all of us,” she said.
A few moments later, Osborne walked out of the council chambers, but was called back. At first she sat in the audience, but then returned to her seat to vote on the travel budget.
After some of the adjustments were made, the motion was approved unanimously. However, Alderman Johnson roiled the waters again when he made a request to reconsider the motion when council returns Jan. 6.
“We will have two weeks to cool off and calm down,” he said. “If we want to discuss it then, we will.”
Another hot spot of the evening was a motion by Thomas to open council meetings with an ecumenical prayer, as had been done before Johnson took office in 2004. The mayor instituted a moment of silence followed by the Pledge of Allegiance out of respect for city officials and others of different religious beliefs.
“The issue needs to be seen for what it is,” the mayor said. “We have members of the council, members of the community, who aren’t Christian.”
The mayor said he hoped that the motion wouldn’t pass. “It will be seen as some great victory,” he said. “We ought to be respectful of all groups.”
The motion was approved, although the mayor, Jackson and Alderman Johnson, himself a music minister, abstained. All three said they were concerned that the change would limit religious diversity.
“We have over 700 houses of worship in Savannah,” Alderman Johnson said. “There are various other religions, and those who don’t believe. We can’t represent them all.”
“In the Pledge of Allegiance, we say ‘one nation under God,’” Felser replied. “That’s what I believe. I’m of the Jewish faith, but I have no objection to hearing prayers from other faiths.”
In other action, the council:
• Discussed a possible location for a World War II monument along the Savannah riverfront. Currently a monument has been proposed for Oglethorpe Square, but that location has resulted in controversy.
• Agreed to continue negotiations with county officials about the Chatham-Savannah Counter Narcotics Team. Aldermen Felser and Sprague asked City Manager Michael Brown to set a meeting between Police Chief Michael Berkow and city council to discuss his plans. Sprague said she heard Berkow say at a recent meeting that the council isn’t doing its part to make the department grow and thinks the council needs more information.
• Approved a rezoning request for 1025 W. Gwinnett Street, a 22.3-acre parcel of property that will be developed for multiple use, including a dormitory and retail businesses. The primary concern is flooding.
No specific plans are in place, attorney Harold Yellin told the council. He said his client is seeking to “down zone” the property, which means it will never be open to package liquor stores, bars or lounges.
“He is taking away a lot of uses” which could reduce any profit he might receive, Yellin said.