Savannah city manager announces retirement after tensions flare among new, returning city council members

Savannah’s newly elected officials — mayor Eddie DeLoach, at-large alderman Brian Foster, 2nd district alderman Bill Durrence, and 4th district alderman Julian Miller — participated in their first city council meeting last Thursday. That meeting went pretty smoothly, all things considered, and concluded with some fond words for city manager Stephanie Cutter after she announced her impending retirement.

But there had been a lengthy closed-door executive session earlier in the day, which is presumably when the details of Cutter’s departure were hammered out after tensions among the mayor and council had flared on Facebook and discussed in the Savannah Morning News.

Stephanie Cutter has had a long history with the city of Savannah and already has qualified for a full pension. But she was an assistant city manager only from 2010 to 2012 before being elevated to the top spot after the forced departure of Rochelle Small-Toney, who turned out to be a particularly poor choice to lead the city.

At first, it seemed like Cutter might have the right skill set after the turmoil of the short Small-Toney tenure, but existing problems worsened while new ones arose. Police staffing deteriorated, no doubt in part because of the federal conviction of former chief Willie Lovett, even as crime continued to rise dramatically. The decade-old city-county police merger nearly unraveled, which many of us saw as the result of poor decisions by city staff. A series of proposed new ordinances seemed ill-considered and incompetently handled, including an alcohol ordinance rewrite, a food truck ordinance, and a proposed bicycle and skateboard ban in Forsyth Park. Confidence has also waned in the city staff’s ability to handle decisions related to property deals and major projects like the long-planned Cultural Arts Center.

As candidates, DeLoach, Foster, Durrence, and Miller were circumspect when asked if they’d replace Cutter if elected, but after DeLoach’s surprisingly easy win over incumbent Edna Jackson in the December runoff, it seemed obvious that Cutter would be going soon.

Then, before the new council had its first meeting, private divisions became public. From a Savannah Morning News editorial:

But former 4th District Alderman Mary Ellen Sprague, who was crushed by challenger Julian Miller at the polls in 2015, wrote on Facebook about deep divisions that allegedly exist between new Mayor Eddie DeLoach and council members on these items. Her source for her posting was “word on the street” — not always the most reliable place to go for news or facts.

But Ms. Sprague isn’t the only one sharing such allegedly inside information on social media. Mr. Thomas [Tony Thomas from the 6th district] also reported on Facebook that the new mayor called him and said “he’s struck a deal’ to get rid of Cutter.” The alderman labeled the whole affair “shady politics.”

Mr. Thomas cautions the new council about backroom deals allegedly made before the council has had the chance to discuss such an important matter, while Ms. Sprague accuses the mayor of meeting privately with five of the nine members of council.

From an SMN article by Eric Curl:

Alderman John Hall and Alderwoman Estella Shabazz said they also received a call in which DeLoach said he had reached such an agreement.

Thomas, Hall and Shabazz said Cutter told them later there was no deal.

DeLoach’s plan for Cutter’s departure may have the support of returning Alderman Carol Bell and new members Bill Durrence, Brian Foster and Julian Miller, but a five-member majority was not the way to operate, Hall said.

As that coverage indicates, it seems possible that the four new members of city council could have convinced at least one more alderman to vote immediately to replace Cutter — after all, as re-elected 1st district alderman Van Johnson said at the opening meeting, “there are political realities that can not be ignored.”

But we could have been looking at a prolonged period of tension if Cutter had not chosen to announce her retirement at the first council meeting. Cutter was certainly able to strike a sweet deal in exchange for her quick, graceful exit — she will serve until her replacement is named after a nationwide search, and she’ll stay on staff at her current salary as an advisor to the new manager for one year. Let’s hope that Cutter’s ongoing presence at City Hall doesn’t somehow work against the new city manager.

And now Savannah has to do something it hasn’t done in a long, long time: conduct a competent search for a city manager. After longtime manager Michael Brown left in 2010, the search process was widely viewed as unfair because it seemed that Small-Toney had an unfair edge over other candidates. Cutter was selected as interim and then elevated to permanent city manager without ever having to compete for the job.

There will almost certainly be racial tensions in the search for a new city manager, but we’ll have to hope that those tensions are not as ugly as the ones we saw during the recent elections.


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