SAVANNAH, Ga. — New leadership and a controversial contract dominated Savannah’s first city council meeting of the year. Thursday’s meeting was the council’s first formal session since its seven new faces took their oaths of office.
Council Chambers was packed after its members joined together for a brief prayer and a moment of silence for community activist Freddie Patrick Sr. and Port Wentworth Mayor Pro-Tem Debbie Johnson.
“We’re going to do things differently than we have,” said Mayor Van Johnson of the prayer at the start of the meeting.
After that, the mayor got right to work with nominations for leadership positions.
Council members first voted on who would replace former Councilwoman At-Large Carol Bell as Mayor Pro Tem. Council members voted unanimously for District 5 Councilwoman Estella Shabazz, who has served longer than any other councilperson.
Council members also voted unanimously to allow Councilwoman At-Large Kesha Gibson-Carter to become council chair. Councilwoman At-Large Alicia Miller-Blakley nominated both Shabazz and Gibson-Carter for the positions.
District 3 Councilwoman Linda Wilder-Bryan nominated District 4 Councilman Nick Palumbo for council vice chair. Councilwoman Shabazz nominated Councilwoman Blakley.
In the end, Councilman Palumbo earned the most votes, with only Shabazz and Blakely voting against the decision. Mayor Van Johnson was among those who voted for Palumbo.
“We’re excited for this day and what is represents: a new era for the city,” he said.
Council members mostly disagreed Thursday over the future of a $60,000 annual contract with a media company, Connect South.
According to its website, the company hires lobbyists who speak with Atlanta legislators and bureaucrats on Savannah’s behalf. City leaders say lobbyists report back weekly when Georgia’s legislature is in session.
Some alderpeople — including Blakely, District 2 Alderman Detric Leggett and Carter — say recent research shows lobbyists are ineffective at promoting change on Savannah’s behalf.
Blakely says some state legislators have not heard from paid lobbyists and some lobbyists have abandoned Connect South for another firm.
“There’s a great concern there,” she told News 3 after the meeting.
At first, the motion to renew the contract failed. Alderman Palumbo appealed the decision, to which Mayor Johnson agreed.
“Given the aggressive legislative package that you are asking to approve, we would have no one to be able to address that for us in Atlanta,” he said of the decision.
After that from the mayor, Leggett changed his mind and voted for the renewal of the contract. News 3 asked him about his change of heart.
“We need someone that’s going to be in the trenches working on our behalf, especially if we’re spending the money we’re spending,” he said.
Council also voted to approve a new legislative agenda. They meet again in two weeks on Thursday, January 30.