What’s next with Beaufort County Council?

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Many say council still needs to get its act together, improve communications and transparency

By Mindy Lucas

Now that Beaufort County’s top administrative official has resigned after some on county council tried to force her out, many are wondering what’s next with both the position and council itself.

Beaufort County Council Chairman Joe Passiment said the county will begin working to fill the position recently occupied by Beaufort County Administrator Ashley Jacobs, after the first of the year.

“How long that will take we don’t know at this point in time,” Passiment said.

The council will wait to install new member, Logan Cunningham, and other members who were re-elected before trying to fill the administrator’s job, he said. It will then work to find a search firm to help with the process. All told, it could take several months, he said.

“That’s the most appropriate way we should be doing this,” he said.

In the meantime, many residents are left wondering how the council plans to re-build trust and confidence in the months to come with an already controversy- and election-weary community.

Jacobs, who resigned in October after only 18 months on the job, came in during a period of strife in the county’s government. From infighting on council, to lawsuits and low morale, it was not an easy time to be a new administrator.

The last straw seemed to come in October, after county council met privately to discuss her firing. Jacobs tendered her resignation a week later.

Asked about how the council was doing in terms of its communications now, Passiment said the council was “doing fine.” However, the news of Jacob’s resignation disappointed and angered many who saw her initial hiring as way of righting the ship.

“I think a lot of people felt like she was going to be the captain of this ship that was going to get them out of the storm,” said Heather Bragg, owner and founder of Bluffton-based marketing and communications firm Bragg Media.

Bragg, who led the recent “Let Her Work SC” effort to petition council members to keep Jacobs in her job, said she had heard from many – from county employees to elected officials and those “on and off the record” – who were either angered or upset by council’s actions to force Jacobs out and continues to hear from people. More than 265 people signed the petition at www.letherworksc.com.

She pointed to the former administrator’s many accomplishments for why the move to terminate Jacobs made no sense. Among those mentioned on the site include the creation of the first comprehensive budget plan and discovery of $1 million that was purpose and accountability.

For county employees, Jacobs instituted the first paid sick leave and was working on a paternity leave policy. She also completed a compensation study to ensure that people are being paid what they’re supposed to be, so that employees are paid equitably and fairly without compensation being attached to such things as sex, race, political affiliations and patronage.

“She was paying attention to the money, building in efficiencies and saving us over a million dollars,” Bragg said. “It feels like the county has taken a large step back now.”

What happened?

To figure out what happened or when the move to force Jacobs out began, many point to Stu Rodman’s tenure as chairman of the council.

After it was discovered that Rodman, who often clashed with Jacobs, had used his personal email in an attempt to steer a roads project on Hilton Head, thereby sidestepping Jacobs and others on council, many in the community and some on council began questioning Rodman’s credibility to continue as chair.

Rodman denied the existence of those emails, but a later request using the Freedom of Information Act uncovered their existence, local news reports showed.

The episode eventually led to Rodman’s ousting as chair in a contentious council meeting held in March.

At that meeting, council members also voiced concerns over Rodman’s treatment of Jacobs and other county employees and took issue with the way in which he had attempted to limit public comment and disregarded parliamentary procedure to control council agendas.

Despite these and other controversies Jacobs inherited, she continued to move forward with her effort to improve communications and transparency and had already started that effort by creating a public information officer position for the county.

That position, held by former Island Packet columnist/senior editor Liz Farrell, was designed to handle both internal and external communications, improve communications with constituents and even work to improve employee morale through planned events and other positive initiatives.

Farrell left the position in September for a job at the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office. It has not been filled yet.

While Jacobs had her detractors on county council, other members have since come forward and said they were never in favor of Jacobs’ removal.

“I absolutely was one that did not approve of that,” said County Councilman Mike Covert. “And I still don’t, now more than ever.”

Covert, who was also one of the most vocal council members in favor of Rodman’s stepping down as chairman, said he “wrestled with the decision” to speak publicly about what happened in the three-hour executive session, in which members voted 6-5 to terminate Jacobs.

“It was, in my opinion, dishonest,” he said. “I (still) consider it to be crooked, morally wrong and reprehensible.”

Since then, Covert said he’s “taken a beating” since there is a code not to talk about what happens in executive sessions.

However, he said if he had to do over, he would do it again.

“I don’t work for the government,” he said. “I work for the citizens … and they have a right to know if things are dishonest and morally corrupt, more than I deserve to hide in executive session held behind closed doors.”

Greenway steps in

At its most recent meeting, held on Nov. 9, county council approved an employment agreement to pay the county’s Community Development Department Director Eric Greenway $190,000 to continue in his role as interim county administrator through June 30, 2021, despite his handling of a development project earlier in the year.

Greenway was criticized by many in the community who thought he should not have relied on the “work and confirmation” provided by an individual from an outside entity when giving the greenlight to Bay Point developers to proceed to the zoning board phase with their application for an “ecotourism resort” on the barrier island.

In July, it was found that the organization in concern – The International Ecotourism Society and its Executive Director Jon Bruno – had a history of troubling allegations and is not a nonprofit as it had purported to be.

In a letter dated Aug. 19, Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, and Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, even went so far as to say that the use and delegation of authority to an unelected third party was “highly unusual” and “constitutionally suspect.”

In the meantime, Greenway has been hired to serve as the county’s interim administrator. It remains to be seen whether he will step in permanently.

Passiment said Greenway has not said whether he’s interested in doing the job in a permanent capacity, but that it will be his choice to apply when the process begins next year.

“Everyone who wants to apply will be allowed to apply,” he said.

Improving communication, transparency

Adding to the confusion over communication and transparency, in October some county council members proposed hiring their own public information officer, or public relations specialist.

In fact, county council had intended to discuss at its Oct. 5 meeting whether to transfer County Communications Manager Laura Fanelli to a newly created position promoting county council. The role was to be a separate position from the county’s public information officer.

However, after local news media found a social media account operated by Fanelli was filled with divisive and inflammatory language on such topics as race and politics, county council dropped the idea.

It is now planning only to fill the county’s public information officer position, Passiment said, the position formerly held by Liz Farrell. Fanelli is still employed with the county, he said on Tuesday.

However, Councilman Covert, who is coming to the end of his four-year term on council, said the issue of the council’s image and wanting to hire their own public relations practitioner may not be over yet.

“Watch what comes up on the agenda,” he said, adding that the idea of council having its own PR employee was “absolutely insane” and a waste of taxpayer’s money.

“I don’t need to have, nor want someone to speak for me,” he said.

Covert, who also chairs the council’s communications and transparency committee, went on to say that county council’s main problems lay not just with improving communications or transparency, but with a group of members who were “fighting for ultimate control of the council and their individual little fiefdoms.”

“They need to get their act together,” he said. “There’s got to be paradigm shift and our leadership needs to change again. This council has got to make some changes.”

Bragg, a former journalist who has handled public relations for various Lowcountry businesses, said county council should be focusing more on what they are doing and less on their image.

“It’s pretty easy to get good PR,” she said. “You do good things plus transparency and that equals good press. If you do bad things, plus trying to hide it, that equals bad press. It’s a pretty simple formula.”

Bragg who likened the council to a “poorly run POA,” or property owner’s association, said council often seemed in disarray.

“They seem generally confused during meetings, they have broken their own ordinances, violated state laws and FOIAs,” she said, adding that she’s questioned why there haven’t been more ethics complaints made. “The theme here is accountability in our local leadership.”

Above: Beaufort County Council Chairman Joe Passiment