Savannah City Manager finalists Jay Melder, Heath Lloyd and Sheryl Long met and interviewed Savannah officials and community members on Friday and Saturday as the research process entered its final stages.
The two out-of-town candidates, Long and Melder, arrived Thursday evening. The three finalists met with council members for small group interviews on Friday as well as Mayor Van Johnson for one-on-one sessions. They also had lunch and toured Savannah with city staff.
Saturday was devoted to meetings with members of the community. Each candidate met with panels representing local businesses, working groups created last year to address community issues, neighborhood associations, city staff and the media.
Among the community panelists were 35 nominated by the mayor and alderman, including local religious leader Reverend Leonard Smalls, former mayor Edna Jackson, former city manager Stephanie Cutter, restaurateur Brian Huskey and president of Visit Savannah Joe Marinelli.
âWe expect to receive this feedback from our business and community partners and come to what I hope will be a unanimous decision over the next two weeks,â said Mayor Van Johnson.
During Saturday’s media session, the three candidates detailed their approaches to the city’s most pressing issues, which spanned the gamut from the recovery of the COVID-19 pandemic to growth and development to the homeless affordable housing public safety.
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Melder, who currently serves as an assistant city administrator in Washington, DC, said he plans to bring his collaborative, community-driven approach to projects.
âI think when you go out into the community you’re more likely to be successful,â Melder said. “The places I made mistakes were when I missed this process.”
Melder acknowledged his interest in the City of Savannah Director’s employment dates prior to the current search. He considered applying when the city initially sought candidates in early 2020, but suspended due to his duties related to helping run the Washington DC government during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the position was reposted earlier this year, Melder took a long look at the job description and found that her skills and experience matched what Savannah was looking for.
âSavannah is a diverse place; Washington DC is very diverse. The issues of poverty reduction, affordable housing, homelessness and crime reduction, using an equity and health-based approach to work, good government – these are things I all do the days in Washington DC and I think these are transferable here, âMelder said. âYou want to be able to make a difference wherever you go. “
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Lloyd, who is currently Savannah’s deputy city manager and development manager in the city’s infrastructure and development office, said his 15 years of experience with the city gives him insight into the role.
“I know Savannah and the culture and people of Savannah.” he said.
If chosen as city manager, Lloyd has promised to strategically target poverty and crime, which he believes are Savannah’s priority issues. Lloyd says the key is to educate the demographic groups most at risk.
âThere are a lot of steps in between and I don’t want to oversimplify, but education will help us fight poverty (and) crime is very similar,â he said.
Lloyd proposed a three-pronged approach to reducing crime in Savannah that involves expanding surveillance technology, continuing the End Gun Violence program, and having a targeted mentoring program.
Lloyd went on to recognize that, despite everything, the town’s greatest asset were its people.
âAlthough we have these challenges like crime and poverty, we continue to thrive,â Lloyd said. “People always want to come to Savannah; that says a lot about people. These are the people who are really going to help Savannah become what it can be in the next 25 years.”
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Long is one of three deputy city managers in Cincinnati, Ohio.
She said she fell in love with Savannah when she visited the city during her previous stint as general manager of North College Hill. Although she applied to be a candidate in last year’s race, she said she was unsuccessful. Now, with more experience in a big city, Long says he’s ready to tackle major Savannah issues.
âSavannah needs consistent leadership, they need a city manager who cares,â Long said, âThese employees need to see at the top of the organization someone with real leadership who cares and is ready to perform and stand in front of them as they try to get their job done. “
Long emphasized a holistic approach to tackling crime and meeting people where they are to empower them.
âA lot of areas where crime happens, there’s a lot of other stuff associated with it. You have rust in the community, you have garbage in the community, you maybe have bad lighting and a lot. people who live there are underemployed or they don’t even realize what resources are available, âshe said.
Long points out that the issues Savannah faces, such as poverty and gun violence, are issues other cities across the country face as well.
âPeople have already done the job, it’s just a matter of how we apply it and how we apply it in an organized fashion,â Long said.
Following this weekend’s panel with local leaders, Mayor Johnson said the city would begin preliminary discussions with the selected candidate to reach a preliminary employment period.