By Bill Dawers

Savannah votes for change — but not too much of it

It’s been a tense, amusing, and occasionally ugly campaign season down here in Savannah. And now we get another month of it as three races head to a Dec. 1 runoff.

I can’t possibly recap all the issues that figured prominently in Tuesday’s vote, which attracted a typically anemic turnout. Violent crime is up and has the city on edge; the former police chief is in prison; the current chief Jack Lumpkin has been hailed as a savior by the incumbents who hired him; the city’s poverty rate is higher today than it was 30 years ago despite booming business at the hotels, the ports, SCAD, Gulfstream, etc.; innumerable issues are languishing on the city’s plate; and the decade-old city-county police merger still hasn’t been finalized and is now on life support (though perhaps brain dead). (I mentioned a few of these issues in my live blog of the results.)

Mayor Edna Jackson, who handily won a runoff in 2011 with 57 percent of the vote, took just 44 percent on Tuesday against a not-especially-strong field. It wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of her stewardship of the city. Former Chatham County Commissioner and business owner Eddie DeLoach, who entered the race relatively late, took 42 percent and will face Jackson in the runoff. Author and agitator Murray Silver was a powerful presence at the debates, but he managed just 12 percent, while Louis Wilson took 2 percent. Read more

Savannah gearing up for 2015 city elections

Although a few candidates (especially Murray Silver, who is challenging incumbent mayor Edna Jackson) have been courting voters for months, the city of Savannah’s campaign season is just now in full swing.

From the Savannah Morning News’ Challengers line up for Savannah City Council seats:

As of Friday morning, 12 residents were listed by the city clerk’s office as having declared their intention to run, which is required before accepting campaign donations, and each council member has indicated they plan to seek re-election, with the exception of Post 2 Alderman-at-Large Tom Bordeaux.

Bordeaux, often seen with his head in his hands at council meetings, announced earlier this year he would not seek a second term.

Click here to see the clerk of council’s updated list of declared challengers. (Also, Barry Gale has been campaigning for District 2, but I don’t see his name there.)

There are nine seats on city council: the mayor (now Jackson), two aldermen-at-large (now Bordeaux and Carol Bell), and six aldermen from individual districts (now Van Johnson, Mary Osborne, John Hall, Mary Ellen Sprague, Estella Shabazz, and Tony Thomas). The current council has come under fire for all sorts of reasons — including depressingly persistent violent crime and questionable property acquisitions. As a voter, I share those concerns, but for what it’s worth, I think Savannahians have a tendency to forget how much power rests with the city manager’s office (now headed by Stephanie Cutter). Read more

Perdue, Deal campaign near Savannah, but the media winner is . . . Kingston

Jack Kingston, outgoing (in more ways than one) representative of Georgia’s CD 1, held his annual family BBQ at Ottawa Farms in Bloomingdale (just outside Savannah) on Saturday. The event in theory could have been an important campaign/media stop for other Republican candidates who attended, but none of those candidates were even mentioned until the 6th and 7th paragraphs of the Savannah Morning News coverage:

Nov. 4 will be the first even-year election day in a long time that Kingston, elected to the House of Representatives in 1992, won’t be on the ballot. He lost a Republican Senate runoff in July to businessman David Perdue.

Perdue and the Republican candidate running for Kingston’s current seat, state Sen. Buddy Carter of Pooler, were two of the guests who spoke at Saturday’s event. Joining them were Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and Ted Cruz, and many others.

The article is over 500 words, but there are no other mentions of Deal or Perdue. The story is all about Kingston’s departure from elected office.

In the July runoff, Kingston got over 15,000 votes here in Chatham County; Perdue got just over 2,500. I’m sure many of those Kingston voters will vote for Perdue next week, but how strong will that support be? Frankly, I have been surprised by Perdue’s relatively low profile down in this part of the state (is he taking Kingston voters for granted?), and I suspect a small but significant percentage of Kingston supporters (5 percent? 10 percent? more?) to either stay home or to support Nunn at the polls next week.

By the way, the dynamics here in Chatham County are interesting: in 2012, Kingston took 52.7 percent of the vote while Obama took 55.5 percent. In 2010, Roy Barnes took 50.3 percent of the Chatham vote with Nathan Deal getting 45.2 percent. Under one scenario, Nunn and Carter might end up doing only slightly better than Barnes did in 2010 in Chatham County; at the other extreme, it’s easy to imagine Nunn and Carter doing far better — especially Nunn.

Joseph “Jack” Lumpkin, longtime Athens-Clarke County police chief, will take over the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department

From the SCMPD:

Savannah City Manager Stephanie Cutter today announced the selection of Joseph “Jack” Lumpkin as the next Chief of the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department. He is scheduled to begin November 9.

“Chief Lumpkin brings proven leadership that exhibits standards of excellence in policing and qualities that will serve all citizens of Savannah and Chatham County with the utmost respect while helping to ensure that our streets are safe,” City Manager Stephanie Cutter said.

The announcement comes as the City and County continue to work on a tentative agreement on a new SCMPD Intergovernmental Agreement. The City and County staff continue to work together to develop a final agreement for presentation to the City Council and County Commission as soon as possible.

“In light of the upcoming negotiations regarding the SCMPD Intergovernmental Agreement, I feel satisfied that Chief Lumpkin will work towards the best interest of both the City and the County,” County Manager Lee Smith said. “It is the intent of Chatham County to supply the best police services possible in the unincorporated areas of the county while supporting the overall efforts of the police chief to re-establish the trust and faith of the citizens and businesses of our community.”

Chief Lumpkin brings 43 years of law enforcement experience to the position, including 17 years as Chief of Athens-Clarke County, where he has developed a reputation as one of the top law enforcement professionals in the Southeast. He holds a master’s degree in public administration, and is a graduate of the prestigious FBI National Academy.

Those are the first few paragraphs of this morning’s press release — and an interesting few paragraphs they are. The prominence of the contentious negotiations about the decade-old police merger suggests that both city and county officials want to keep the combined force. As I noted in a previous post here, however, it’s not clear how much public support remains for the merger, especially in unincorporated Chatham County. (A number of smaller municipalities in the county have their own police forces, by the way.)

Lumpkin also comes in at a critical time for the SCMPD because of the recent fatal shooting by police of a handcuffed suspect, the legal woes of the former chief, general frustration with crime among the public, and reports of low morale among officers.

Lumpkin recently announced that he would be retiring from his current job in Athens no matter what. It’s obviously perfectly legal for Lumpkin to get a pension from one job while he works another, but the transition has raised a few eyebrows around town. On the other hand, maybe it takes someone with a second income to be interested in such a tough job here in Savannah, where the chief’s maximum salary is $145,000.

In addition to problems already noted, Lumpkin also takes over a police force with problematic staffing levels in a city that has long accepted pervasive street-level crime in certain neighborhoods and that is increasingly reliant on tourism and large-scale events.

Interestingly, Lumpkin’s selection was actually announced last night via Alderman Tony Thomas on his Facebook page. The post was shared only with friends, but since Thomas has about 2,600 friends, the news was widely disseminated last night and numerous outlets reported the choice before the official announcement.

A few thoughts on Georgia’s apparently conflicting employment data

There has been a lot of commentary lately about the seemingly contradictory employment data in Georgia and in other states, primarily in the South.

Buzz posted most recently about the Wall Street Journal article Rising Jobless Rates Are a Southern Mystery. From the WSJ:

Georgia’s unemployment rate has soared [to 8.1 percent] from a postrecession low of 6.9% in April at a time when the national rate, which was 5.9% in September, has been steady or falling. Tennessee’s jobless rate bottomed out at 6.3% in April but rose back up to 7.4% by August. Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina have seen similar surges this year.

Before considering the data from Georgia, take note of this additional passage from the WSJ:

Jobless rates at the state and local level are determined by a Labor Department model that blends a monthly survey of households with other data and past trends. Their short-run movements can reflect statistical noise more than any underlying trend, and many economists prefer to look at a larger Labor Department survey that estimates nonfarm payrolls to gauge regional trends.

Much of the commentary in Georgia over the last few weeks seems to have missed the key point that the employment statistics that are endlessly analyzed come from two separate surveys. The survey of nonfarm establishments with payrolls is used to determine the headline jobs numbers. The separate survey of households is used to estimate the unemployment rate, the labor force participation rate, and other information about the labor force. Read more

Is decade-old Savannah-Chatham police merger doomed?

The Chatham County Commission voted as expected today and called for the end of the department merger that created the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department.

From Eric Curl at SavannahNow/Savannah Morning News:

UPDATE: City Manager Stephanie Cutter today issued the following statement on the Chatham County Commission’s vote regarding the Savannah-Chatham police department:

“I understand the Chatham County Board of Commissioners voted today to begin the process of terminating the SCMPD intergovernmental agreement. While I respect the will of our elected representatives, I believe strongly that dissolving the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department will hurt public safety in our community.”

The disagreements about costs, about police service, and about the power granted to city officials have been simmering ever since the Chatham County and Savannah police departments merged about a decade ago, but problems have now reached a boiling point.

I know people who consider themselves “in the know” who are assuming that the merger will be saved — that today’s vote is just part of an increasingly high-stakes negotiation. But there are many county residents who seem to want the merger to end and many residents of the city who are so frustrated that they don’t even see all that much at stake.

As a resident of a high-crime area of Savannah with a great deal of street-level drug dealing, I had hoped the merger would bring us a more coherent approach to fighting crime — a fresh strategy that would address the obviousness of some of the criminal activity that happens pretty much round-the-clock just a few blocks from the police precinct next to which I live. But, no.

The potential collapse of the police merger looks especially grim given the weight of other issues — including the search for a new chief, the federal corruption charges against the former chief, and the ongoing investigation of a high-profile fatal shooting of a suspect (who was allegedly still armed) in police custody just last week.

The City of Savannah has a strong-city-manager/weak-mayor-and-council form of government. Stephanie Cutter has only held the permanent post as City Manager since spring 2013. At this point, one has to wonder how deep the support is for her among the elected leadership.

Fatal shooting presents another test for Savannah-Chatham police and other public officials

A West Savannah man was shot and killed on Thursday by an officer with the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department.

Charles Smith, 29, had apparently been arrested, handcuffed, and placed in the rear of a squad car, but then allegedly kicked out a window, got his hands to the front of his body, and pulled a gun.

The Savannah Morning News has some excellent, detailed reporting about the incident and about the community response, which included street protests and allegations of racism.

The GBI was immediately called in, and I’m inclined to give high marks to officials who went to the scene and tried to keep things calm throughout the day. Mayor Edna Jackson later released a statement that seemed to hit a lot of the right notes.

An autopsy is being performed today, so let’s hope detailed, unambiguous accounts of the incident provide some clarity.

This incident comes at a tricky time for Savannah officials. Federal charges against former police chief Willie Lovett are still making news (and will be for awhile), the city of Savannah and Chatham County continue to argue over the terms of the 2003 police merger, and the public just learned the names of the three out-of-town finalists for the position of permanent chief.

Police officials are also important players in the city’s proposed alcohol ordinance revision, elements of which have many Savannahians up in arms.

Savannah NAACP planning big church-based voter registration push on Sunday

From the Savannah Morning News, Savannah Branch NAACP leaders call for Voter Registration Sunday:

Savannah Branch NAACP leaders on Monday called on all churches in Chatham County to recognize “Voter Registration Sunday” this week to encourage registration of all eligible voters for the upcoming elections.

Al Scott, branch president, said there are 31,000 unregistered, eligible voters in Chatham County and the drive is targeting 10 percent of those.

He called the upcoming elections the most important in memory, citing defense and health care issues as key. He said some 16,000 jobs at Hunter Army Airfield/Fort Stewart are “on the line” and cited a void created by the pending retirement of U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

The most important elections in memory?

Al Scott, a successful politician at the state level, is also Chairman of the Chatham County Commission.

Hey, it’s a small city, so why shouldn’t the county chairman also be head of the NAACP, which is urging churches (both predominantly white and predominantly black?) to register their congregants to vote? No insult at all meant to Scott, but the overlapping connections (conflicts?) just seem very Savannah. Fittingly, the registration drive was announced on the steps of a church, and the drive will also target a number of marginalized groups, including jail inmates who have not lost their right to vote.

There has been a lot of speculation about the likely black turnout in the November elections; I think it will be very strong. Some polls have shown unusually high black support for Republican statewide candidates; I think those polls are wrong. If we’re seeing a push like this for registration, there will be a major get-out-the-vote effort too. The polls screening for “likely voters” are not taking into account some of the realities on the ground.

Another questionable property deal by city of Savannah, this one involving a blighted building owned by a state senator’s family

Would you consider this building to be an eyesore?

State Senator Lester Jackson doesn’t seem to like that term. Chatham County lists the owners as Jackson’s parents, although his father passed a couple of years ago. Bizarrely, the fair market value of the building increased from 2012 to 2013, but the property owners found exemptions so that they paid zero property taxes to the county in 2013. [UPDATE: New reporting in the Savannah Morning News that raises even more questions has established that there was “a hardship exemption” from paying taxes last year and that the increase in fair market value by the County was from “an update last year to the cost tables the county uses to calculate construction costs.”]

Because of safety concerns, the city of Savannah initiated a process that would lead to a pretty quick demolition, and now the Savannah Morning News is reporting that the city is poised to purchase the property from Jackson’s family for a so-far-undisclosed sum.

If you’ve been following the city of Savannah’s property purchases, you already know that the last thing the city needs is to own more vacant and blighted property. In this case, after years of failing to force the owners to improve or sell the property, the city seems ready to reward Senator Jackson’s family. It will obviously be interesting to see how this plays out. I have more details and links in a post at Savannah Unplugged.

Mounting troubles and questions regarding the future of the Savannah-Chatham police department

There have been quite a number of shootings in Savannah in the last couple of weeks (at least 15), which has combined with other news to put crime back under the spotlight in Savannah.

In addition to all the recent violence, the Savannah-Chatham Metro Police Department is facing high turnover of officers, former Chief Willie Lovett is facing serious charges for a “commercial gambling-extortion scheme,” the search for a permanent Chief continues, and the city-county agreement to merge police forces earlier in this century is now in jeopardy because of ongoing disputes.

It remains to be seen whether Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson and City Manager Stephanie Cutter are capable of dealing with these problems individually, much less simultaneously.

On top of all that, the city — as a way of improving a neighborhood — is planning to demolish historic homes that have been rented by working class black families for 130 years and replacing them with a police station. On a street named for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. No joke. (I’ll have more to say about this later, but I have already blogged about it quite a bit in addition to my City Talk columns in the Savannah Morning News.)

Editor Jim Morekis from last week’s Connect Savannah:

As the mayor points out, that bright future is threatened by any surge in street crime, in or out of downtown. But this crossroads was visible for quite awhile to anyone who wanted to pay attention.

Some of us have warned for years that Savannah’s inability to address the crime situation would inevitably be a hindrance to meaningful economic growth.

City leaders across multiple administrations have had ample opportunity to increase public trust over the years.

From my City Talk column on Tuesday, in which I describe my disgust with Savannah’s continued toleration of highly visible street prostitution and drug dealing:

Street level dealing and solicitation might be tough to prosecute, but how can more serious crimes be policed when other criminals — those who want to buy illegal drugs and hire prostitutes — have an open invitation to come into the neighborhood?

Street crimes like these are not “victimless” crimes as I hear argued routinely. Neighborhoods are destroyed by criminals involved in illicit selling and buying of whatever.

We can and should focus on community outreach, education, poverty reduction and other initiatives. And on rooting out police corruption.

But we aren’t going to see significant reductions in crime if we continue to tolerate so much of it right out in the open.

Now we’re seeing new crime initiatives with unsettling names, like Operation Ceasefire and Operation Trust and Information

There is a great deal of support for the rank and file officers, but public trust in the higher-ups, which was already pretty low, is eroding fast.

Buddy Carter endorsed by Savannah Morning News in CD 1 Republican runoff

From the Savannah Morning News’endorsement, Buddy Carter preferred GOP pick in 1st District:

Republicans in Southeast Georgia still have some work to do.

From Monday (the first day of early voting) until the July 22 runoff, they must go to the polls for the second time this year to choose the GOP’s nominee in the race for Georgia’s 1st Congressional District seat.

Our recommendation is State Sen. Buddy Carter.

Mr. Carter, who was the top vote-getter in the crowded, six-person Republican primary on May 20, is facing Dr. Bob Johnson in the July 22 runoff.

Both men are decent, honorable people. Unfortunately, the heat of this campaign has brought out the worst in both candidates, doing a disservice to themselves and to Republicans who must make a choice.

The endorsement notes Carter’s 18 years in elected office, including as mayor of fast-growing Pooler and in the Georgia House and Senate. It also notes a variety of Carter’s conservative positions.

The editorial also questions whether, as “a Tea Party-backed candidate,” Johnson would be able “to work with Democrats.”

The piece also notes other key endorsements that Carter has received, including from sheriffs in the district and from 3rd place finisher John McCallum.

So all of this support looks like good news for Carter, who took 36.2 percent of the primary vote. That is, it looks like good news — unless it isn’t. Given the Republican mood down here along the coast, I’m really not sure how this particular race will play out in light of the “establishment vs. Tea Party” intra-party struggle.

John McCallum — 3rd place finisher in CD 1 primary — endorses Buddy Carter

From the Savannah Morning News’ John McCallum endorses Buddy Carter in congressional race:

With 20.5 percent of the votes, McCallum, a businessman and aide to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, finished third among the crowded field of six candidates in the May 20 primary, just 1,175 votes shy of second-place finisher Bob Johnson.

His endorsement could be a big push for Carter heading into the July 22 runoff.

Carter finished with just more than 36 percent of the votes, which was not enough to avoid a runoff with Johnson, a Savannah surgeon. Both candidates have traded sharp barbs in the past several weeks in their attempts to appeal to the conservative primary electorate.

Failed 2012 T-SPLOST + no plan B = dramatically scaled back plans for Effingham Parkway

The long-discussed Effingham Parkway, also known as the Georgia Portway, would have gotten over $100 million in funding if coastal Georgia voters had approved the regional T-SPLOST in 2012. That would have covered the vast majority of the total of all phases of the project.

But T-SPLOST got thumped at the polls, and Georgia’s leaders have found no viable long-term funding for transportation infrastructure. (Charlie’s column this week hit a few themes relevant to this post.)

The certainty that the elected leadership could not and would not have the vision or courage to implement any sort of plan B was one of the reasons I supported the T-SPLOST down here on the coast, but that fight is long over.

So now we’re seeing a dramatic scaling back of the plans for the Effingham Parkway, which seems like a truly necessary project given both population growth and increased traffic at the ports. From Effingham Parkway may be two-lane road in the Savannah Morning News:

The road, which would take pressure off of Ga. 21, originally was contemplated as having four lanes from Ga. 30 to Blue Jay Road and two lanes from Blue Jay Road to Ga. 119.

That configuration would cost an estimated $120 million, a number that’s unlikely to be realized anytime soon since the region voted down a transportation special-purpose local-option sales tax (T-SPLOST) in 2012.

A more reasonable project now would be $32 million for a new, two-lane road from Ga. 30 to Blue Jay Road – 6 1/3 miles. McCall Road would be improved from Blue Jay Road to Ga. 21. No new construction would be done north of Blue Jay Road.

Interim Effingham County Administrator Toss Allen notes in the piece that it’s uncertain where the $32 million will come from. Construction will not begin before 2017.

GDOT’s 2009 Project Concept Report made an overwhelming case for the parkway. An economic analysis from Georgia Southern University in 2009 concluded:

With an estimate cost of 135.4 million dollars internalized by the region, there is a short-term drag on the region’s economy. So the key question to be asked is, are enough of the benefits of the road captured locally to justify the investment? The answer to that question is a very strong yes. In 2020 alone, Gross Regional Product will be 2,140.0 million dollars higher if the road is built compared to the no build scenario. In that same year, real disposable income will be 230.0 million dollars higher if the road is built compared to the no build scenario.

No more head butting for Savannah aldermen

A quick followup to Tim’s post yesterday. From now on, the only head butting on Savannah City Council will be metaphorical (let’s hope). From GPB Savannah’s Facebook page:

Two Savannah Aldermen involved in a verbal scuffle during a city council meeting last week are releasing public statements that they say will be their final comments on the matter.

Council member Mary Osborne stood up during the meeting to accuse fellow councilman Tom Bordeaux – a former state representative – of calling her offensive names and trying to head-butt her. The dispute happened during a discussion of a proposed amendment to a city ordinance regarding building heights.

In his statement, Bordeaux says he was rude and that he’s sorry for his part in the exchange.

Osborne says she accepts the apology and hopes “everyone will put this incident behind them.”

David Simons ends campaign for president of Savannah-Chatham school board

Just a quick note about David Simons’ announcement today that he has ended his campaign for board president of the Savannah-Chatham County public schools. Here is Simons’ statement via the Savannah Morning News:

“After careful consideration and with the support of my family, I am terminating my bid for Savannah-Chatham County school board president,” Simons wrote. “This position is too important to be distracted by issues unrelated to educating the children of Chatham County. I have learned from the challenges of candidacy and I believe these lessons will make me a better campaign consultant going forward. I truly care about the future of our children and this community and believe this is the right decision at this time. ”

Simons got enough votes on Tuesday to get into the runoff against Jolene Byrne, but Byrne’s 40.1 percent in the primary pretty much guaranteed that she would defeat Simons (21.5 percent) in July.

A bit oddly, there has been no statement so far about the withdrawal on the Simons campaign Facebook page, and the elections board hasn’t yet received word that Simons is withdrawing. Assuming all the necessary paperwork is filed, Byrne will face third place finisher Chester Ellis (17.3 percent) in the runoff.

Simons explicitly touted himself as “the only Republican” in the 5-way non-partisan race, owns Simons Political Group, serves on the board of the local Chamber of Commerce, and was endorsed right before the election by the Savannah Area Business Political Action Committee. Over 17,000 votes were cast in Chatham County in the Republican Senate primary, but Simons got only 5,900 of the 27,000+ votes cast in the school board race.

It seems that Simons and some key members of Savannah’s business community dramatically misunderstood the local electorate and their priorities.