Beaufort County

Proposal would let county administrator hire, fire local fire chiefs

A few departments, not already under direct county purview, would be exempt

cconley@islandpacket.comJanuary 21, 2013 

Proposed amendments to the Bluffton Township, Sheldon and Daufuskie fire district charters would give the Beaufort County administrator authority to hire or fire the chiefs of those districts.

County attorney Josh Gruber says the measure would bring uniformity to the three agencies, all of which are regulated by County Council. It also would make clear that personnel decisions about the chief are subject to the county administrator's approval.

"Under the (existing charter) document, there was no reference to how the fire chief was hired," Gruber said. "Certainly a significant argument could be made that the county administrator already has that authority, but it makes sense to express that."

County Council began reviewing the issue last week. A final vote is likely within the next month.

The plan would not affect the Beaufort or Hilton Head Island fire departments, or fire districts covering the Burton and Lady's Island-St. Helena Island areas, which are not directly regulated by the county, Gruber said.

As proposed, the fire district boards would vet candidates and forward a list of finalists to the county administrator. The administrator would then have authority to hire the chief after consulting with the fire district board.

The boards would still conduct annual reviews of the chiefs, and those evaluations would be passed on to the administrator to determine "promotion, demotion and termination."

"We think that the county administrator would be the more appropriate person to have that final decision-making authority because he is only person ... directly regulated by County Council," Gruber said.

Bluffton Township Fire Commission approached the county late last year about revising its charter, which hadn't been reviewed since 1999. The commission supports the amendments, chairman Terry Reynolds said.

The new language "formalized collaboration" between the commission and the county, he said. It also clarifies who has authority to remove chiefs accused of wrongdoing.

For instance, in 2007, Bluffton fire commissioners found they couldn't remove Chief Clay Graves after he was accused of financial mismanagement. Graves eventually resigned.

The proposal hasn't met universal approval, however.

Councilman Gerald Dawson said Sheldon fire commissioners want more say in hiring than the proposal allows. Dawson said some commissioners want to formally approve a candidate before that person can be hired.

Attempts this week to reach Sheldon fire district chairman Wayne Blankenship for comment were unsuccessful.

However, Chief Buddy Jones said he had no problem with the proposal.

"The way I am reading it, it is going to be a joint decision-making process, and the county administrator is going to have the final say," he said, noting the county and district have long had a good working relationship.

County officials and the Sheldon fire commission are expected to discuss the proposal Jan. 23.

Councilman Jerry Stewart, whose governmental subcommittee reviewed the charter amendments, predicts "it will all work out."

"When you take authority people think they have away from them it creates a problem," he said. "But most importantly for the districts, it's an authority they never had in the first place."

Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.

Related content:

Bluffton Fire Chief Clay Graves resigns; budget audit scheduled, Oct. 31, 2007

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