Illustration by Jenn Carroll
KURTIS PURTEE is running for reelection as Sixth District alderman. His election four years ago was tempestuous, a hard-fought campaign with the deeply divisive and very controversial longtime former incumbent Tony Thomas.
No sooner had he defeated Thomas when he became a focal point in the bitter divide on City Council between Mayor Van Johnson and his supporters vs. the trio of Kesha Gibson-Carter, Alicia Miller Blakely, and Bernetta Lanier. His frequent jousts with Gibson-Carter during Council meetings have become a regular feature.
Purtee remains one of the most unique figures ever to serve on Savannah City Council. The body’s first openly gay member, Purtee is also a veteran career law enforcement officer who is currently a captain with the Georgia Southern University Police Department. In all, the Flint, Michigan native has lived and worked as a police officer in the Savannah area since 2005.
One of Purtee’s main challenges on Council has been bringing the Southside up to speed with 21st century realities after the district had essentially been Thomas’s personal fiefdom for over 20 years.
We spoke to Alderman Purtee last week.
It’s always amazed me that the Southside is arguably the most key residential and commercial area of Savannah, but is still largely off the political and media radar. What can you say is different about things in the Sixth District now under your leadership?
The cool thing that’s happening now is a lot more community engagement. The City Manager and City staff are meeting regularly with neighborhood associations and community groups. In past years that kind of work was usually just left up to the individual alderman.
We’re in a really good spot right now, for the first time in a long time. We’ve got SEDA talking to folks about bringing in some projects. We’re circling back to the Southside Legacy Project, which is sort of a basic road map for the area. A lot of the focus there is on increasing walkability. We’re looking at more multiuse buildings, with ground floor retail and residences above. We’re looking at different recreational opportunities.
I got the City Manager to agree on $9 million in funding for a new Southside community center. We’ve done big improvements in the parks. The big takeaway there is to develop what we’ve already got.
I’m having conversations about allocations from the hotel/motel tax to come to the Southside.
Really? That’s huge.
Well, I’ve been pulling some strings and having some tough conversations. The idea is to focus on our access to waterways and recreation.
For example, we’re planning a sort of coastal heritage museum – not just about Coffee Bluff and White Bluff, but expanding into the culture and history of other areas, and including a lot of African-American history of the Southside. There are so many possibilities.
And of course we’ve made a big move on public safety. Nick Palumbo and I have been working to provide a new day center to provide resources for our roofless population. It would help do things like provide them with IDs, help them work with organizations like Family Promise and Gateway.
To most people's eyes, the increase in homelessness is one of the biggest changes on the Southside. Is it really a bigger problem on the Southside, or is it just that it seems more visible and out in the open there?
We’ve got tons of undeveloped land on the Southside still. We have land that Georgia Southern owns. With parcels like that, it’s easy to grow a large encampment. We’re talking 40 or 50 people in some of these encampments.
The Southside had a big surge post-pandemic and with clearing out of camps elsewhere. Development has been a factor. All those factors combine to really drive folks to find a refuge.
Since you’re the resident police officer on Council, let’s talk about crime. I know crime is on the increase on the Southside, but how does it really compare to the rest of the county?
The majority of crimes against persons these days on the Southside are domestic violence calls, increasingly with people getting shot. It just blows my mind. Years ago when we would respond to domestic violence calls it was usually physical. But now it escalates very quickly to using a gun.
As for property crimes, frankly most of them are related to the homeless population. I want to make sure no one gets the idea that we treat the homeless as criminals. All it takes is one or two people dealing in stolen property out of a camp of 50 people to give everyone the wrong idea that all homeless people are criminals.
Behavioral health is a big focus. Our attempts to increase behavioral health have been hugely successful. The goal is to get a behavioral health advocate for each police precinct. A lot of calls officers go on will involve a mental health issue.
For the first time we’re starting to approach these calls differently. In the past many calls would usually involve someone with a mental health issue, that person ends up using some kind of force on the officer, and that results in them being taken to jail. Which is not always the appropriate response to situations like that.
We’re looking at more preventive actions such as backing community partnerships, increasing youth opportunities during summertime. I was blasted in the past for saying Savanah has a gang problem, but it absolutely does and I stand by that.
Let’s talk about you and Kesha Gibson-Carter. She is vacating her at-large seat in an underdog run for mayor. Is part of you relieved at the prospect of her not serving on Council with you next year, should you be reelected?
(Laughs). The thing is, years ago when she was at the Rape Crisis Center, we worked together on a lot of things and we got along great. We attended all sorts of community events together, like National Night Out, Walk A Mile In Her Shoes, events like that. I still have text messages on my phone from when we were friendly and got along really well.
I think what happened is there was a big falling out between her and Van. It’s interesting, because previously Van and I didn’t see eye to eye very much at all. He supported Tony Thomas for reelection, as you recall. But I wanted to give Van the opportunity to be his own person, to give him the benefit of the doubt, after he was elected mayor.
Things eventually got to the point where there was that confrontation in the hallway, and I finally just had enough. She called me and my partner “faggots.” I responded with that remark about “ghetto bitch.”
As I have said many times since then, I absolutely wish I hadn’t said it. Does it detract from what we’re all trying to do on City Council? Absolutely, all day long.
I responded in the moment, out of anger about what she called us, but of course you just can’t say that. It’s a white male talking to a Black female, and I get it, what I said is just not something you can say.
There seems to be such a hatred coming from her. I don’t hate Kesha. There were times in the past when Kesha and I would have conversations together, and vent to each other.
There are things where Van has said, I’d like your vote. It’s not an automatic yes. The vast majority of things that have gotten passed by this Council, almost all members were in agreement on.
I’m not aligned with anybody in particular. But you find reasonable folks you can work with. When you have a productive and respectful relationship, it’s easier to have those discussions and come up with solutions.
I don’t want to get into too much back-and-forth with you and other candidates, but your opponent Mike McCann did say something that I think you should have a chance to respond to. He basically says you work too many hours as a cop to be an effective alderman.
First off, how I’d respond is to say that public service is public service. I work in public service as a police officer, and I work in public service as an alderman.
The other thing is that as a captain, I have the opportunity to flex my schedule a good bit. As many hours as I put it at the police department, I put in even more as a City Council member. What often happens is that time from about 3 p.m. to 11 or 12 at night, I’m working on City stuff after my work at the department. Also, I don’t usually work at the police department on weekends.
The truth is that I have an awesome system that I’ve worked out that enables me to be effective at both jobs. But then again, I’ve always worked at least two jobs. I’m always working. It’s just who I am.
It seems inevitable that SCAD will eventually expand into your district at some point. How are you preparing for that eventuality?
SCAD knows where I stand. It pisses me off to see that huge new dorm right next to the bridge. It’s disgusting. That’s now the first thing everyone is going to see when they first come to Savannah. It’s not just ruining the historical component, it ruins the skyline and the view.
I’ve tasked the City Manager with coming up with more ways for SCAD to help contribute to public safety resources. Other pieces would include getting them to help fund affordable housing in Savannah. My big ask is for more workforce housing, on the Southside in particular and across Savannah.
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