Tough Choices: The realities for Savannah's new city manager

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - The right guy at the right time with the right solutions.

There are some great expectations among city leaders and the citizens of Savannah for our brand new city manager.  He's been on the job now for about three weeks and there is already
the distinct feeling this guy is cut from a very different cloth than his predecessors. Perhaps because they could have only dreamed of having a background like his.

Do you think Rob Hernandez is the right guy?  Let's spend a moment getting to know him.

Back in August, what could be a game changing decision for the city of Savannah was made.
A new City Manager was on the way. An independent thinker with an impressive resume.

Hernandez was currently serving as the Deputy County Administrator for Broward County, Florida.  Before that he served as Deputy City Manager for the city of Coral Springs. He served as Deputy County Manager for Fulton County, Georgia. And the list goes on.

Hernandez likely had a lot of choices for his next move. He chose the Hostess City.

In a recent interview Hernandez told me the Savannah position fit perfectly into his long-term professional goals. Today, I wanted to know if he planned to be long term member of the Savannah team.

"I was sincere when I said when I came to the city of Savannah I was coming for the long term," Hernandez told me. "That's why when I came here I immediately purchased a home in the city of Savannah because I want to send a message to the community that I'm not here, I don't intend to be a flash in the pan and build my resume and move on to somewhere else."

Hernandez is coming from a county with 31 cities and more than six million people, where 140 languages are spoken in the schools, and where another shooting is seen as just another day in paradise.

His move to Savannah puts him in a place like nothing he's ever experienced before. Generational poverty, a skyrocketing murder rate, systemic neighborhood neglect and a city organization that is still operating as if it were stuck in the 1980's.

He says while Savannah and Broward County have stark contrasts in terms of public priorities, this challenge was right up his alley.

"Yes, this was a challenge that I felt was up my alley and I was really willing to wrap my arms around and hopefully make a positive difference."
Savannah's police chief has been attempting to make that same kind of positive difference when it comes to public safety with limited success. Hernandez is thinking holistically.

"I think fixing the public safety challenges in this city requires the heavy hammer approach of more police on the streets, a community policing effort and the threat of federal prosecution for gun related crimes. However," Hernandez cautioned, "it takes more than just the heavy hammer approach to deal with these issues. You have to tackle the systemic issues of chromic unemployment, chronic poverty and poor attainment within the school system."

And fixing that means fixing an economy that has been locked in a single direction for too long.

"The organization, the way it's structured, moving forward needs to change. I think that we're currently organized around a different business model and a different organizational philosophy that going forward will change. We need to work harder at diversifying our economy so we attract more higher-wage jobs than we currently have."

Specifics on that will come when Hernandez and Savannah City Council collaborate on a new strategic plan for Savannah.

But it is the here and now that we must get through first.  Hernandez arrived in town hours after Hurricane Matthew rolled through.  The hope of a man who has experienced a dozen such storms himself, was of course to gage the city's reaction.

But perhaps more importantly, your immediate response.

"I was blown away at how Savannah as a community responded," he said. "In just about every single neighborhood, I saw people out on the street, clearing the sidewalks, clearing the squares, clearing the public right-of-way and neatly piling the piles of vegetative debris and so forth, on behalf of the city.  And I can tell you I think I've gone through like 12 different hurricanes or near misses and things of that nature, and I never saw that in my community."

Just getting a job like this requires a change of philosophy for the applicant. High powered Public Service positions attract a lot of interest, from a lot of people who should NOT be considered. Hernandez did not wait to be asked.

In his resume cover letter he tossed in the statement: "There is no dirt on me. I live a clean simple life, prefer to tell things the way I see it. And I sleep well at night."

I asked him why he felt it necessary to include that. Also, whether he feared that would put a target on his back.

"Well, the target is already there," he responded, "Because listen.  When you're in this type of position as an appointed public official, people are always expecting you to fail.  And so, I can't ever put myself or the city in a position where my personal behavior will bring embarrassment to the city or my profession."

Something Hernandez says he has never done to an employer.

For the last three weeks, Hernandez has been in listen mode, to council, to you the tax payer and to the little voices in his own head that tell him what a stressed community like ours needs to focus on.

He is quick to point out that there is some corralling of cats with a city council of nine, very independent thinkers.  His job is to facilitate, perhaps mediate at times.  But he does not want you to ever mistake him as the 10th alderman.

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