By Bill Rauch
With municipal budget seasons now behind us and with the heart of hurricane season approaching, I sensed now might be a calm moment and reached out to about a dozen managers who run the most substantial coastal municipalities from North Myrtle Beach to Hilton Head Island. I wanted to know who — judged by his or her peers — they thought was the best town administrator working on the Carolina coast today.
The results of my survey were interesting. Town administrators (sometimes given instead the title “city manager” or “town manager”) are of course politicians too, so three didn’t see it as being in their interests to call back, two did call back but were too politic to name a name, and the rest stuck out their necks and voted.
Of the seven votes cast, Hilton Head Island Town Manager Steve Riley received an overwhelming four votes, and his votes did not just come from his neighbors — half of Riley’s votes came from Charleston and north.
Don’t think this highly specialized group doesn’t talk amongst itself — privately — and know who’s who. They do.
Linda Tucker at Isle of Palms, Van Willis at Port Royal and Spencer Whitmore in Folly Beach each pulled down one vote, which I assured the administrators would be cast secretly. But it is apparent from the comments — on and off the record — that Steve Riley is the “dean” of the group. As Van Willis put it, “He [Riley] is a guy a lot of us look to for feedback and direction. … There’s something to be said for longevity.”
It is often said that the expected tenure for a town administrator is 5-6 years, but Riley has been in Hilton Head since 1995. It hasn’t always been easy. The present mayor, David Bennett, ran on the promise that he’d change the town’s form of government from Council-Manager to Strong Mayor, a change that would have surely sent Riley packing. At this time last year The Island Packet was writing Riley’s political obituary, employing headlines like, “Bad blood between mayor, town manager is ending badly for Steve Riley.”
But after cooly and efficiently dealing with back-to-back hurricanes and a new mayor’s ambitions, Riley’s still there, and last month he made the municipal hire of the decade, picking up Beaufort County’s brilliant young acting administrator, Josh Gruber, as his assistant town manager. That’s the local government equivalent of Pepsi’s veteran CEO hiring Coke’s young rock star CEO and bringing him or her in as Pepsi’s Chief Financial Officer.
Gruber starts in Hilton Head on Aug. 6. The ironies are too many to write here. There’s not enough space in the whole newspaper to tell the whole tale. But just for starters it was County Councilmen Rick Caporale and Steven Fobes, each elected from a Hilton Head district, who led the effort to push Gruber out. And now, with no new county administrator in sight, they will have front row seats for the Riley-Gruber spectacle, which will surely feature the county being repeatedly out-maneuvered by the town without the county even knowing it until after the ink’s dry.
But who’s counting, right?
As Mount Pleasant Town Administrator Eric DeMoura, freshly back into town from Denver, where Mount Pleasant picked up an All-American City Award from the National Civic League, who declined to offer a vote told me: “The local level is where the hard work of improving people’s lives really happens. Every day. I respect and support the whole group [of a dozen administrators] because they’re the ones doing that work. Every day.”
Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.