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Year in Review: Top Ten from Savannah news & politics

The good, the bad, and the ugly from an uproarious year

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LET’S GET this out of the way: This is a roundup of the top 10 local news and politics stories from 2016.

So Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton aren’t listed here.

We figure you can get plenty of that on your Facebook feed. Instead what we have for you is a Top Ten list of the most notable happenings — the good, the bad, and the ugly — in Savannah in 2016.

Did we mention Donald Trump isn’t on this list? He’s not on this list.

This is a local paper.

So no Hillary Clinton either.

Sorry!

So here without further ado is our Top Ten Year in Review of LOCAL News and Politics stories.

We understand you will disagree with some of them. And we understand that some folks will still give us a hard time for not mentioning Trump or Clinton or the FBI or the Russians or Wikileaks or Bernie Sanders or “fake news” in this list of LOCAL, Savannah-based stories.

But as they say: It is what it is!


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Hurricane Matthew

It started out as a just another gray blob on the radar sometime in mid-September, but by the time the tempest was within swirl distance of the Caribbean, it had its own name.

Hurricane Matthew was upgraded from a tropical storm on September 29 and reached its Category 5 zenith the following day. It dipped back to a Category 4 in the first days of October but packed no less of a punch as it tore through the Bahamas and Haiti, where it destroyed homes and crops and left more than 1600 people dead.

The southeastern U.S. braced itself for impact as Matthew crept along the coast. Florida and South Carolina declared a state of emergency and issued evacuation orders days before the hurricane made landfall, but Georgia governor Nathan Deal and Chatham County authorities waffled in the “cone of uncertainty.”

A joint press conference with county leaders and CEMA yielded more confusion, and Tybee Island went ahead and called a mandatory evacuation anyway on Oct. 5. Gov. Deal ordered the rest of the county—as well as five surrounding counties—to evacuate the next morning.

An estimated 90 percent of residents east of I-95 left for safety, though some diehards remained to weather the storm, along with thousands of first responders, hospital staff and government employees.

Hurricane Matthew slammed into Savannah on Friday night Oct. 7, uprooting trees and ripped off roof shingles. Winds at 96mph on Tybee Island and storm surges of almost eight feet were recorded at Fort Pulaski, washing away sand dunes along the coast.

The next morning as Matthew moved on to terrorize Charleston, SC and the Outer Banks, locals ventured out into the eerie calm to survey the damage: Four hundred-year oaks downed across live power lines, homes destroyed, debris everywhere and the tragic death of Jefferson Davis, the father of two young children.

Citizens were allowed to return to the city on Oct. 10, though curfews remained in place through Oct. 12 as Georgia Power crews worked to restore electricity to 250,000 homes.

The feared looting and crime wave never came to pass, and neighbors rallied together to feed, clothe and shelter those affected by the storm for weeks afterwards.

In the months since, local officials have coordinated with state and federal agencies to provide financial aid and remove more than almost a half million cubic yards of debris.

At the end of November, the City of Savannah agreed to participate in a FEMA program that will ameliorate the cost of dragging all those walls of tree trunks and branches to the chipper, now estimated at more than $22 million.

In order to receive the funds, the city has to get the job done by the end of April, though new City Manager Rob Hernandez—on the job literally one day after the hurricane—has said that the collection process could be wrapped up by the end of February. – Jessica Leigh Lebos

Kevin Reid
  • Kevin Reid

Murders Most foul

We learned in 2016 that Savannah is not as desensitized to horrific street crime as we may have thought.

The gunning-down of art gallery owner Kevin Reid in September while walking downtown shocked and horrified the entire city. 

Reid was walking on East Waldburg Street with his wife at about 9:45 p.m. when they were approached by at least three suspects in an apparent robbery attempt.

He was shot and later succumbed to his wounds on the way to the hospital. 

Reid was the owner of Australian Aboriginal Art Gallery on Broughton Street, and was an active Tourism Leadership Council member. His death was a cause of mourning throughout the area, both for those who knew him personally and for what his murder represents.

Maybe the most poignantly symbolic thing about it was that Reid was in a way a real microcosm of this particular era in Savannah. 

He was someone from literally the other side of the world who fell in love with Savannah and decided to stay here and make a difference in local arts and culture.

Reid had worked with indigenous peoples in his native Australia for years, traveled all around the world. Came here, invested money in a new and promising city. 

All of it gone in the span of seconds, the gallery now closed down, the suspects still at large. 

And the attack on Reid was just one of many high-profile armed robberies and straight-up gun battles in the tourist area this past year, some fatal, others not.

The uptick in over-the-top, brazen violence in Savannah’s most sacrosanct and lucrative area sounded an ominous note of dread even as the new hotels seem to reach higher and higher to the sky and wall in the entire downtown. 

And as of this writing, there would be eight more homicides in Savannah after the killing of Kevin Reid -- a total of 50, only three less than in 2015, the deadliest year in Savannah since the 1990s.

(Note: On Dec. 23 the homicide would rise, with a murder/suicide resulting from a domestic dispute on Grove Point Road.)

Yes, the murder rate is virtually unchanged from former Mayor Edna Jackson’s last year in office -- an office she lost mostly due to that murder rate. 

While new Mayor Eddie DeLoach has the benefit of a police department at full staff for the first time in decades -- the understaffing no doubt being one reason street crime got so out of control -- he will also in the end be judged by the same grim metric most Savannah mayors are judged by.

And as the victims pile up, the money still piles in. When will the tipping point be reached? And can it be stopped? – Jim Morekis

Rob Hernandez with City Council
  • Rob Hernandez with City Council

Hiring Rob Hernandez

The hiring of Rob Hernandez seemed oddly anticlimactic in a city accustomed to long, drawn-out battles over the hiring and firing of new City Managers.

But that seems par for the course for this no-nonsense, military veteran administrator who seems to prefer not to make things about himself.

Much of the battle was already won with the victory of new Mayor Eddie DeLoach and a slate of new aldermen in the 2015 elections. Running on an implicit platform of removing City Manager Stephanie Cutter without explicitly saying so, her departure seemed a fait accompli even as the vote totals came in.

A much-maligned but very pragmatic deal was soon reached: Cutter would “retire” with full pension, but also pull down a full year’s salary after her replacement was hired.

Ridiculous waste of taxpayer money? A travesty of public administration? Probably.

But the cynical and expensive sweetheart deal did avoid a contentious, almost certainly racially divisive effort to remove her.

Savannah is accustomed to dog-and-pony show “national searches” for City appointees which always seem to result in yet another crony insider hire.

So the quickness with which City Council settled on Hernandez — with experience in South Florida and in Atlanta — and more importantly, voted for him unanimously, came as a pleasant surprise.

Hernandez started work almost concurrently with Hurricane Matthew’s once-in-several-lifetimes assault on Savannah and the Georgia coast. While coping with that he also had to put together a 2017 budget which attempted to legit

If the most recent challenge – over Hernandez’s initial decision to cut arts and social services funding in an attempt balance the 2017 City budget – was an indication of his approach, we’re in good hands.

In the end Hernandez opted to cut initiatives and studies emanating from his own office to restore the cuts. When was the last time anything like that happened here? – Jim Morekis

 

Split
  • Split

The Savannah Bananas

In case you thought 2016 was all bad news: Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the Savannah Bananas, the feel-good hit of the summer.

Many of us mourned the departure of the Savannah Sand Gnats to Columbia, S.C., sad to see the end of decades of minor league baseball in town going back to the sport’s earliest days.

 When Savannah citizens wouldn’t build the Gnats a new stadium — which is our right as taxpayers — the Gnats decided to move to a place that would, which is their right as a business.

 But the historic digs of Grayson Stadium proved more than adequate for Jesse and Emily Cole, who made a deal with the City to use the hallowed ground for college summer league team play, sprinkled with various dance-offs, dress-up games, and all manner of vaguely double-entendre, Banana-themed contests in between, you know, the actual baseball.

And it worked! Better than almost anyone thought it would. 

Huge and diverse crowds packed the games, drawn not only by the high-energy hijinks and reasonable prices, but by the spirited play on the field.

Turns out these college kids are far more enthusiastic about crowd interaction and signing autographs than the Sand Gnats players and management ever were. 

 With the players living with host families during their time away from school, they forged real relationships with the community which carried over into fan support at the games. 

 Add in the not-trivial fact that, as a summer league, Bananas players use honest-to-goodness wooden bats instead of those ridiculous NCAA aluminum bats, that means us baseball purists were pleased as well. 

 (And let’s not forget the hottest Insta follow in town, Daisy the Bat Dog!)

 Sellout after sellout at Grayson led to a inaugural Cinderella season for the Bananas straight out of the movies, as they won the Coastal Plain League Championship series in their fairytale first year in existence. 

 It will be a tough season to match in 2017, but my guess is the crowds will be even bigger next year to see what happens. – Jim Morekis

 

Interior of Johnny Harris
  • Interior of Johnny Harris

There goes Johnny Harris

Our grandparents danced in the grand ballroom under the star-studded ceiling.

We stuffed ourselves with baked chicken and Brunswick stew in the charming window booths. We shipped bottles of barbecue sauce to loved ones not as blessed as we were to have a taste anytime we had a hankering.

But nostalgia doesn’t pay the bills. The owners of Johnny Harris restaurant announced in the fall of last year that it was in negotiations to sell the iconic building on Victory Drive to an Atlanta-based development firm, along with the rest of the 11-acre parcel that has been a respite for the horses of Wicklow Farms for decades.

Variance requests to make way for a retail strip shopping center, including a five-story storage unit, were presented to the MPC soon after, causing an uproar among citizens furious that officials would allow the destruction of the beloved building and one of the city’s last undeveloped green spaces.

In spite of the rancor and a petition to designate it as a historic landmark that garnered thousands of signatures, Johnny Harris could not be saved. Restaurant president Norman Heidt declared in January that even if the deal with ARS Ventures LLC didn’t happen, the company was still going to tear down the place that housed fond memories for generations of Savannahians.

“We simply cannot allow the Johnny Harris Restaurant building to be used by a non-owned entity. Therefore, we have decided that even if this development falls through, we will demolish the building ourselves and continue to market the property for sale,” wrote Heidt in a letter to MPC director Tom Thomson.

True to his word, Johnny Harris served its last fried drumstick on May 28. Lines wrapped around the restaurant with people from near and far eager to sample one last bite of their favorite dishes.

Demolition began on August 6, the bulldozers quickly reducing the brick edifice to rubble and razing until there was no trace of the legendary barbecue shack that first opened in 1924.

The bare piece of land is still up for big development, to the chagrin of nearby Parkside neighborhood and others concerned with light and noise pollution and heavy traffic on Victory Drive.

The MPC denied a rezoning request for the storage facility at its November 1 meeting, though it did approve a land use amendment submitted by the developers’ local counsel, attorney Robert McCorkle. Residents have vowed to continue to the fight.

Those still hungry for a taste of the past for can visit the new Bowtie Barbecue at 6724 Waters Ave. at Eisenhower, owned by the great grandson of “Red” Donaldson, who bought Johnny Harris in 1942.

And JH’s famous barbecue sauce is still sold online, but to many it just won’t taste quite the same. – Jessica Leigh Lebos

Yusuf Shabazz
  • Yusuf Shabazz

The Ballad of Tony and Yusuf

The long-running saga of Savannah’s two most controversial politicians — Alderman Tony Thomas and County Commissioner Yusuf Shabazz — came to a head this summer.

Thomas had been the subject of allegations of illegal behavior for years, but it wasn’t until a web video series called ‘The Troll Chronicles’ broke in February that he appeared to be in real trouble.

After a GBI investigation of the charges of providing alcohol to minors, Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap announced a grand jury would be convened in July to look into the matter.

After a month of hearing testimony, on Aug. 26 the jury announced it had decided not to recommend a criminal indictment.

While it was undoubtedly good news for Thomas, most jurors actually cited the statute of limitations as the main reason for not charging him.

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Heap would say, “Multiple victims’ testimonies corroborated that Mr. Thomas displays a pattern of grooming young males to become sexual partners.”

She went on to say that Thomas “clearly” violated state law, and “unfortunately they are only misdemeanors and not felony cases.”

“Testimony included a pattern of behavior by Mr. Tony Thomas that could be described as a person trying to obtain sexual contract with another person in a predatory manner,” Heap said.

Commissioner Shabazz, fresh off a slap on the wrist for a hit-and-run charge involving a city traffic worker as Shabazz was behind the wheel of his van, faced a runoff in July’s Democratic primary against Tabitha Odell.

(Because no Republican was in the race, the winner of the primary would be the de facto next 5th District Commissioner.)

Many observers thought Shaundra Smith McKeithen, who had challenged Shabazz’s wife Estella in 2015 for City Council, might prove the Commissioner’s most formidable opponent.

But when McKeithen didn’t make the runoff, it became a head-to-head contest between Shabazz and Odell, wife of Recorder’s Court Judge Harris Odell, himself a former County Commissioner.

While only a tiny sliver of the electorate — just nine percent of eligible voters — decided the race, Odell was the clear victor with 61 percent of the vote.

And just like that, the 5th District has a new County Commissioner.

As for Tony Thomas, he isn’t up for reelection again until 2019. – Jim Morekis

Cast of the film "Baywatch"
  • Cast of the film "Baywatch"

Savannah: Moviemaking Central

One of the biggest but most oddly under-the-radar developments in the country right now is the fact that Georgia is by some measures currently the third-largest film and TV industry hub on the planet.

That’s right: The ol’ Peach State ranks behind only Hollywood and Bollywood.

Let’s not kid ourselves though. It ain’t all about the Spanish moss and the Southern hospitality.

Georgia offers by far the most generous tax incentives for the film industry in the nation, and there is absolutely no question that in the money-driven film/TV biz, that is the game-changer that brought our state into such rarified company.

From The Walking Dead to The Hunger Games to the growing Tyler Perry empire and many more examples, Georgia — mostly the metro Atlanta area — is hosting literally hundreds of major projects to the tune of roughly a billion dollars in statewide annual economic impact.

Savannah is experiencing its own share of that boom, and 2016 was a peak year.

The most notable but far from only example is the Baywatch reboot filmed on Tybee. It stars literally the world’s biggest movie star, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who brought his familiar common-man touch and genius Instagram presence to folks all over our little town.

Other key projects filmed around Savannah include the acclaimed series Underground, Coup D’Etat starring Michael Caine, A Little Mermaid starring Shirley MacLaine, Misfortune starring John Cusack, and Lizzie starring Kristen Stewart and Chloe Sevigny.

That said, the local film industry wasn’t without controversy in 2016, as the Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA) took over virtually all activities of the Savannah Film Office, previously a standalone effort under the City Manager’s purview.

Critics said SEDA’s track record, including its questionable relationship with convicted director Randall Miller, wasn’t the best. Some brought up questions of possible conflicts of interest as well.

But as they say in the biz, money talks and bullshit walks, and as long as the moolah and the jobs and the publicity all keep rolling in, everyone will be happy.

Scarlett O’Hara herself must be smiling down at us. – Jim Morekis

Patrick Mumford
  • Patrick Mumford

The Tasing of Patrick Mumford

In 2016 Savannah joined the long national list of viral videos of controversial police incidents with a serious case of mistaken identity.

As captured on bodycam, Savannah Metro officers rolled up on Patrick Mumford in a driveway on Martha Street and told him he was being detained.

He asked why, and one officer said, “You got a warrant, dude.”

Savannah Metro was trying to serve a warrant on one Michael Clay, wanted for assault and stealing a cellphone, at an address on Martha Street.

Except this wasn’t Clay. When police asked Mumford’s identity, he was slow in responding and was tased rather quickly and arrested, all of it on video. 

Massively complicating issues of course was the fact that Mumford is African American and the first officers to respond were white. 

Given the parameters of the case, it didn’t take long after the video was released for it to go national, with prominent mention by activist/gadfly/columnist Shaun King. 

While one is tempted to say it’s understandable that cops would be on edge given the military-style ambushes on them for much of the last year, the fact is this incident occurred on Feb. 1 of 2016.

And it probably only came to light at all because of a lawsuit against the City by Mumford, who eventually settled the case for $100,000. 

An angry Chief Lumpkin released the full versions of the bodycams in an attempt to set the record straight. But candidly the unedited footage didn’t do much to dispel the sense that this incident didn’t have to happen this way at all.

And while Lumpkin did suspend four officers involved in the incident, again it only happened long after the fact, when the public became aware. 

In the end one is tempted to say it could have gone worse, much worse. Which itself is kind of a sad comment.  – Jim Morekis

 

The Bull Street Library
  • The Bull Street Library

Potboiler at the Library

For all of the tension and tragedy available within its pages, the real drama at the library surpassed anything found inside any book.

The abrupt departure of Live Oak Public Libraries’ longtime executive director and several other key managers in April revealed a department plagued with accusations of a hostile work environment, sexual harassment, and financial misconduct.

Central to the latter was confusion around sums of money revolving from the library coffers to its separate fundraising arm, the Live Oak Public Libraries Foundation.

LOPL’s Regional Board of Trustees pulled up Jason Broughton from his position as the Assistant Director for Public Services to serve as the Interim Director. Overwhelmed by staff complaints, Broughton requested assistance from the state library, which recommended forensic financial and humans resources audits.

The summer swirled with rumors as more employees resigned under the investigation.

In September, the audits reported a mess in upper management levels, including gift bags stuffed with paper containing the personal information of employees and a paycheck issued with a $454,534 mistake.

The head of the Human Resources department and the department coordinator were both fired, an act followed by the hasty appointment of two new members to the 11-member library board—both of whom were related to employees accused of misconduct. One of the new board members, the current Superintendent of Schools, resigned almost immediately.

Soon after, the Chatham County Commission quietly added a line item proposing for a six-month notice to dissolve the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Chatham County and Live Oak Public Libraries.

Fears abounded that the county would divest itself from the regional library system it has shared with Liberty and Effingham counties since 1945.

Not so, says County Manager Lee Smith, who said it was just time reinvigorate the MOU to reflect current policies and encourage more transparency. The dissolution passed, and the county is currently conducting its own audits, which will either corroborate or contradict the findings of the state-mandated audits.

In the midst of the turmoil, the county was hit by a literal disaster. In the wake of Hurricane Matthew on Oct. 7, the libraries were among the first government facilities to reopen to the public, offering free internet and power sources to citizens.

The grand Bull Street Library celebrated its 100th anniversary this fall, and the Savannah Children’s Book Festival brought its usual kid-themed delights to Forsyth Park on Nov. 12.

The search continues for an Executive Director to oversee the 19 library LOPL system. – Jessica Leigh Lebos

Rest in Peace

Lady Chablis
  • Lady Chablis

Lady Chablis

The local star of the Club One drag stage rose to fame as a central character in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, playing herself in the film version. She became an international icon for the trans community, touring the world with her signature sass and continuing to fill seats at home until her death on September 8 at 59.

Don Logana
  • Don Logana

Don Logana

A native of Syracuse, NY, the big man with the big heart was voted Best Investigative Reporter by Connect Savannah readers in 2014 and Best Local TV News Anchor 2015. The WTOC anchor was killed on I-17 by a drunk driver on Nov. 20.

Michael Curry
  • Michael Curry

Michael Curry

On November 19, the 13-year veteran of Savannah’s Master Firefighter force died of an aortic aneurysm during a rescue operation of 47 people from the Savannah River after a gateway collapsed. A participant in dozens of local charities, Curry left behind a wife and two children.

Kevin Reid

The art lover and entrepreneur was shot and killed by masked assailants while walking with his wife near their home downtown on Sept. 21. Reid had become a well-known presence in the community as owner of the newly-opened Australian Aboriginal Art Gallery owner. His murderers remain at large.

Leonard Miller

The last of Savannah’s legendary freehand sign painters and muralists—his work recognizable by its bright colors and looping script—passed away on January 5. Also known as the Sand Man for his beach creations, Leonard (pronounced Le-NARD) was a beloved fixture on Tybee Island and at his church, where he loved to sing hymns in his glorious baritone.

Sheldon Pinckney

A true song-and-dance man, the former Calvary drum major wowed crowds at the Savannah Theatre for the past 12 years after a long stint in Orlando at Disneyworld. The native entertainer, also a church soloist and beloved member of the local theatre community, passed away at Hospice Savannah at the age of 48.

Bill Avila

The 92 year-old Navy veteran and local rock ‘n’ roller was laid to rest Nov. 3. The music man also served as a local booking agent through the ‘70s and ‘80s and continued to be involved in the scene, most recently jamming on his standup bass with the Midtown Pickers on Wednesday nights.

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