Longtime Hilton Head Island town manager Steve Riley is looking for a new job after tensions with Mayor David Bennett left him questioning his future on the island.
Riley said Thursday that personality conflicts during Bennett’s first year in office spurred him to consider whether he should remain in his post of 25 years or look for work closer to his family in the Midwest. On Wednesday, he was named one of three finalists for a city administrator position in Davenport, Iowa, about 14 hours closer to his hometown of Omaha, Neb.
Time with family and opportunities for his wife, Mary Jo Riley, to further her architecture career were Riley’s main considerations, he said. But a difficult learning curve in his and Bennett’s fledgling partnership also contributed to the decision to seek another job, Riley said.
There were delays in contract negotiations with the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and discussions with Beaufort County Council over economic development that frustrated Bennett as well as conflicts between the mayor and town staff about the pace at which each worked. Bennett pushed too hard and town staff dragged its feet too much, sources close to each told The Island Packet in December.
“It’s a learning curve for everybody who comes on the council,” Riley said in December. “It’s been many years since we’ve had a mayor who has not previously been on council, so the learning curve is even steeper. He’s adjusted, and it’s a team sport.”
On Thursday, Riley said he and Bennett simply did not get along.
“(We) may not mesh as well as I have with other past mayors,” he said. “But not everybody gets along. It’s not a big deal.”
Bennett declined to comment on his relationship with Riley on Thursday and said he offered his well wishes when Riley informed him about the potential Davenport job on Wednesday.
“He’s determined that there’s another step for him and his career, and so I think we need to thank him for his service and wish him well,” Bennett said, adding that he appreciates Riley’s years of service to the community.
Riley has overseen every major town project since 1991. In his first year on the job, he helped create a land-buying program that has spent more than $160 million to preserve open space and manage development.
He’s also guided the adoption of taxes and fees to support traffic improvements, beach preservation and the town’s growing role in the RBC Heritage presented by Boeing. Riley was also a steady behind-the-scenes hand on the revitalization of Shelter Cove and the controversial plan to build a new south-end campus for the University of South Carolina Beaufort.
Those accomplishments and more make Riley’s potential departure a tough blow to the town, Councilman Bill Harkins said.
“You see all the major changes that have taken place here, and I think many of them for the good, and his fingerprints are on those changes,” said Harkins, who was surprised by the news of Riley’s potential move.
Riley and the two other finalists, selected from a pool of 34 applicants, will be interviewed in Davenport on July 11 and 12, according to a Davenport news release. Being considered along with Riley are the city’s interim administrator, Corri Spiegel, and the city manager of Stallings, N.C., Kevin Woods.
Before coming to Beaufort County, Riley worked as a planner and consultant in the Midwest and earned a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Iowa.
Riley serves as chairman of the S.C. Planning Education Advisory Committee. On Thursday, he was also named to a three-year term on the Commission on Fire Accreditation by the Center for Public Safety Excellence.
Attempts to reach Davenport Mayor Frank Klipsch for more information on the selection process were unsuccessful.