Savannah remembers ‘greatest unsung legend’ for more than 50 years of service

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – The Savannah community is mourning the loss of a public servant who dedicated his entire life to serving others. Jimmy (James) Blackburn was Savannah’s City Attorney for more than 50 years.

Blackburn’s career started in 1957 when he became Assistant City Manager. At a 2012 city council meeting, he once remembered his first assignment: “adopting a comprehensive zoning ordinance,” which had never before been done.

Former Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson says she worked closely with Blackburn during her time as an Alderwoman. She called Blackburn her friend and says she will miss him.

“It wasn’t about the money,” she said. “It was about Savannah. And he loved his community… Jimmy was known across this community — whether you’re white, black, polka dot or what have you — he treated all people the same.”

Blackburn’s firm — Wiseman, Blackburn, and Futrell — says he served as City Attorney from 1961-1967 and again from 1971-2012.

His last city council meeting was in April 2012 when he addressed the council with some parting words.

“The position of City Attorney is a peculiar one since you represent a major employer and corporation of three-hundred million dollars a year with utilities and various other things,” he said. “It is not a one-person job. It is run, and I hope will continue to be run, by a professional staff.”

Jackson says Blackburn’s smarts made him a great litigator. She says he always won his cases, and that he did so with adrenaline and passion matched by none.

“People admired him. People wanted to be like him. They copied him. Other lawyers would come in and they had such a passion for what he had to offer,” said Jackson.

Blackburn said in 2012 that he had been in government “long past retirement age” but that he left “with a great deal of regret of not being in the day-to-day participation.”

Jackson says he went to public events long after his retirement. His last event was Mayor Van Johnson’s inauguration.

Mayor Johnson says Blackburn is one of Savannah’s “greatest unsung legends” and he was honored to have him attend his inauguration with his son, Jay.

On a personal note, as someone who shepherded me through my formative years as a public official, his advice and historical context were invaluable, which is why I was so honored that, despite his failing health, he chose to personally be with me during my victory party on December 3, 2019 and mayoral inauguration on January 2, 2020. On both occasions, he told me how proud he was of me and reminded me to always do the right thing. “

Mayor Van Johnson

“Knowing Jimmy, he’s in a better place telling the heavens what the laws are,” said Jackson with a laugh.

Funeral arrangements have not been finalized for Blackburn. His law firm did not wish to comment yet on his death.

Blackburn’s entire farewell address is below:

Mayor Jackson, 55-years ago I stood in this chamber and accepted an appointment of the Council as a lawyer. The first assignment I had was – Savannah had decided to go into an urban renewal program. One of the requirements was they would be adopting a comprehensive zoning ordinance. Savannah had zoning since the 1920’s but never a comprehensive one. I took that assignment and worked with our newly-named planning commission; but only on the third planning director were we able to, and as the zoning people here will remember, July 29, 1960 we enacted the first zoning ordinance with Don Mendonsa as the then Planning Director.

Don went on subsequently to serve along with me as a City Manager as I served as City Attorney in the Maclean administration – a very progressive administration. My tenure has lasted now more than 50- years. The last 42 of those years has been consecutive.

The position of City Attorney is a peculiar one since you represent a major employer and corporation of three-hundred million dollars a year with utilities and various other things. It is not a one-person job. It is run, and I hope will continue to be run by a professional staff.

Don Mendonsa accepted the position as a City Manager and of course was a professional City Manager. I am deeply committed, throughout my entire career, to professional management and seeing what that has meant to the City of Savannah has really been the driving force in what I have sought to accomplish in my life. But I have had to represent the Chief Executive, the City Manager and have represented each City Manager the City of Savannah has ever had, as well as the corporate body; and with a unique relationship to each of you.

But, I have not been able to do this alone and I want to commend those who have worked with me over the years. The custom was and has been that the City Attorney was not a full-time person and that term is very misleading; not a person reporting through the City Manager. Usually, in my judgment and all the ones that have served as well as in the County Government, the School Board, and so forth, each have been active, practicing attorneys with a general law practice.

I have had my own law practice. I had the support of my then law partner when I accepted this, and the subsequent partners after him; but I have also had the loyal support of the several law firms that I have worked with. I want to commend them – Bill Shearouse, William Shearouse, Jr., of the firm of Weinerr, Shearouse, etc., has been with me 38 of those last 42-year. He brought not only his personal commitment but also the commitment of his firm – a well established, big law firm. I want to point out to you that a law firm that goes into this does incur the possibility of conflict, thus there are conflicts in many areas of law practice.

I want to commend not only Bill but the trial lawyers in his firm who undertook, when we had the waiver of immunity come along in trial work in that area. Bill is here 8 and I certainly want to commend him. Also, likewise I want to commend the law firm of Lester Johnson, PC. Lester has been with me 30-years. It has been not only a strong personal friendship but a strong professional relationship that I treasure. In addition to that I mentioned my law partner, the one I had since the day I started – Casper Wiseman who is now deceased and Mr. Futrell who later joined us; who is now deceased. I had their full support. My son James B. Blackburn, Jr., after getting the same education as Tom (Bordeaux) did as his class mate, he went off to Georgia Tech with the Mendonsa influence, got his Masters Degree in City Planning. He was a planner for a while and then decided the lure of the law was greater and he later went to law school and in 1984 he joined out firm. Of course with the demise of the partners he now leads that law firm as my law partner.

In addition to that, because of conflict, we are required to have available outside counsel. Pat O’Conner came to Savannah as an associate of Bill Shearouse; he changed firms and helped build a practice and he has certainly served us well. The jewel of that firm is the specialized effort we had with Patty Paul who we worked with so many years. Those are the lawyers that were assigned to me and helped me to provide me the service we have been able to give to the City.

When I last accepted the appointment in the 2nd Johnson administration I advised the Mayor I would not likely be able to serve the full term. But, I don’t have to tell you that events dictated that I do so, and I did serve the full term.

It was my hope and desire, as this administration came in that you would resolve the question of the professional management of the City by having a professional manager – not by personality, but that the position should be professional and a professionally trained person should be in it with a professional staff. I feel you have accomplished that and I congratulate the City Manager on the selection of her staff.

But having said all that, it is never a good time – with the workload that we have – but I feel that I have reached a time when I am going to have to slow down and I want to let it be known that I will not be available for appointment for another term.

I will help in any way I can to continue the good the good work and the excellent reputation that the City of Savannah has had in it government. So I tell you that I have been here long past retirement age, but I will be retiring and working in transition hopefully to have some of the load that I have been carrying for several years.

I will leave with a great deal of regret of not being in the day-to-day participation. I wanted to clear the air since there has been some speculation about the position. I am certainly grateful for the opportunity, but I feel it is time for me to make a decision. Thank you.

Former City Attorney James Blackburn

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