The Hilton Head Town Council’s secret hiring of a powerful law firm to discuss the town manager’s future behind closed doors cost taxpayers more than $29,000 — though in the end, it apparently was all for nothing.
The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette revealed in July that the council without a public vote hired the Columbia-based McNair Law Firm in August 2016 to deal with the then-precarious employment situation of longtime town manager Steve Riley, who had been conducting out-of-state job searches amid his behind-the-scenes clashes with mayor David Bennett.
As of July, the total cost to taxpayers for McNair’s legal services was $11,528. An Oct. 17 invoice, obtained this week through a state Freedom of Information Act request, shows the cost more than doubled to $29,068.
In September — more than a year after the secret hire — Town Council acknowledged that a public vote should have been taken before using McNair’s services, then proceeded to take an open vote to hire the firm. But on Oct. 3, Town Council voted unanimously to end its relationship with McNair in the Riley matter and to support the longtime town manager.
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“I know it’s a lot of money, but it was a very interesting process,” said council member John McCann, who in August announced his candidacy for mayor, when contacted Tuesday. “At that time, when Steve (Riley) wanted to leave, we just went through the motions of making sure if he decided to leave, we were OK.”
Council member and mayor pro tem Kim Likins said Tuesday the town made the right decision in hiring McNair.
“Maybe we wouldn’t have had to spend as much (if we didn’t hire the firm), but at the time, the situation looked very differently,” she said. “And I think we did the responsible thing.”
In an unrelated legal matter, the town has spent nearly $200,000 to date on a defamation lawsuit brought by Likins against vocal government critic Skip Hoagland, records show.
Contacted Tuesday, council member David Ames said in a text message about the Riley matter: “Regarding McNair, that situation is behind us. The expenditures made sense and were prudent at the time the town manager was seeking other employment opportunities.”
Council member Marc Grant declined to comment Tuesday on the taxpayer tab in the Riley matter. Bennett did not respond to a request for comment.
Bennett said previously the McNair firm was hired because Riley was job searching, and Town Council wanted to ensure the town manager position remained filled. Riley had no comment when contacted Tuesday.
Town staff attorney Brian Hulbert said Tuesday the McNair expenses would be paid out of the council’s line item for legal fees in the town budget.
After Riley said he intended to remain in Hilton Head, Town Council put its employment discussions on hold. The meetings with McNair attorney Melissa Azallion started again this summer when Riley was a finalist for a position in San Marcos, Texas.
Riley also was a candidate in September for the position of Beaufort County administrator but later withdrew from the search. After the public pledge of support by Town Council, Riley said he was no longer job hunting.