Mayor Otis Johnson breaks silence on recent controversy

By Don Logana - bio | email

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - For the last week Mayor Otis Johnson has been quiet about the city manager search and the events that happened in city council last week. Mayor Johnson declined numerous interview requests from WTOC, so WTOC went to the mayor who appeared as a guest on Newsradio 1290 WTKS with Bill Edwards on Wednesday morning.

Edwards and callers questioned the mayor about the recent events in city council, including the final two city manager candidates and their qualifications.

Johnson says many were against acting city manager Rochelle Small-Toney before the question over her ability to obtain a $1,000,000 public official bond was called into question.

"The furor started when Ms. Small-Toney could not get bonded," Edwards said.

"No, no, no. There has been a concerted effort on part of some people in our community to discredit Ms. Small-Toney from the very beginning," Johnson replied. "Nobody is going to pick a city manager but city council."

They also addressed the race issue which was brought up during the meeting and critics of the process.

The Mayor broke a week long silence after city council erupted into full blown dissension with claims of racism thrown into the mix of the city manager search process.

"I didn't make it an issue, somebody else made it an issue. We had a process that the entire council endorsed in terms of how we got to where we are and then when the white candidates were eliminated, all of a sudden it became a race issue. It wasn't a race issue before he was eliminated," said Mayor Johnson.

Last week, four council members, all white, spoke out about the final two candidates, acting City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney and Albany City Manager Alfred Lott.

"Now that the white candidates have been eliminated, all of a sudden it's an issue," Mayor Johnson said at last week's city council meeting.

"In his own words he said the white candidate is gone and there's a problem," a caller name Kenny said to the mayor. "He made that statement. He injected race into the vetting process."

"I respect his right to have his opinion," Mayor Johnson said.

"What did he mean by the statement, it's our turn now? And when asked if he made that statement, he said, 'So what.' Sounds to me to be arrogant," a caller named Jerry said.

"Sir, people are attributing statements to me that I may not have made," Johnson said. "You may feel that was arrogant. There is no tape or video of me saying that."

"I was told, behind closed doors it was said it is our turn now. In other words, we will get the black candidate because blacks are in the majority," Edwards said.

"Well, we live in a democratic society, sir, and 57 percent of this community are African American. Five members of a nine member council are African American. Majority rules," Mayor Johnson said, following the comment by comparing city council to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying they have five to four votes and the union does not fall apart.

Not everyone was critical.

"Otis is a man of conviction and he is doing what he was elected to do," caller James Dewberry, a former council candidate, said.

"That is the most intelligent statement I have heard about this situation in a long time," Johnson said. "I want to applaud this gentleman for being intelligent enough to understand the situation."

After about 20 minutes of questions about qualifications of the candidates, as well as defending the quality of city services, it was WTOC's turn.

Lynda Figueredo asked the mayor for an interview to share his thoughts with our viewers. At first he referred her to the Public Information Office and said he would have a position statement ready, along with a new conference, by the end of the week.

After a few minutes, the Mayor agreed to hear some questions. First up, the bond issue regarding Rochelle Small-Toney. "That is settled. It's not news anymore. That's done," he said.

When asked about the lawsuit againts city manager candidate Lott by a current City of Savannah employee, the mayor responded, "That's a legal matter. Ask the city attorney."

Finally, the mayor was asked about addressing the events of what just happened last week.

"What just happened," he said. "We're talking about the city manager search," Figueredo asked.

"Lady, have a good day please," Mayor Johnson replied, and walked away.

After a vetting process by two teams from the City of Savannah, including a visit to Albany Georgia, the city council will come back together to pick a new city manager.

Johnson has said, if there is not a clear agreement on who the next city manager will be among council, the search could start over.

Check out the bios of the final candidates below and vote in our poll and tell us who you would pick.

The finalist for Savannah City Manager are as follows:

Rochelle Small-Toney

  • Rochelle holds a Master of Public Administration and a Bachelor of Arts from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Currently acting Savannah City Manager (2010- present)
  • Previously the assistant city manager (2007 - 2010).
  • Assistant city manager  for the city of Charlottesville, Virginia.  (1999-2007)
  • Assistant city manager (1993-1999) and assistant to the city manager (1993-1999) for Danville, Virginia
  • Worked as a budget analyst (1986-1991)
  • Personnel Analyst (1981-1986)

Alfred Lott 

  • Alfred holds a Master of Public Administration from the University of Central Texas and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Political Science from Tuskegee
  • City Manager for the City of  Albany, Georgia (2005 – Present)
  • The Public Works Director for the City of Takoma Park, MD (2002 – 2005)
  • Assistant City Manager for the City of College Park, MD (1998 – 2002)
  • Strategic Planner for the Pentagon in Washington, DC (1997 – 1998)
  • Served as the Chief of Army for Public Affairs in Los Angeles, CA (1995 – 1997)
  • Chief of Public Affairs for the WWII Commemoration Committee for the Pentagon in Washington, DC (1993 – 1995)
  • Roles for the U.S. Army Corps in Fort Hood, Texas, 1st Cavalry Division and 3rd   (1991 – 1993) to include; an Aviation Operations Officer, a Battalion Executive Officer and an Aviation Division Chief.  He has also served as the Chief of Public Affairs for the 4th Transportation Command in Germany (1986 – 1990) and as a Company Commander for the C Company, 4th Aviation Training Battalion in Fort Rucker, AL (1985 -1986).
  • Other military accomplishments from 1976 to 1985 include the roles of Infantry Platoon Leader, Infantry Executive Officer, Army Aviator, Personnel staff officer and Training officer.

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