Hilton Head Island has a dead man walking as town manager.
And that’s a shame.
Mayor David Bennett, elected in 2014, and veteran town manager Steve Riley have not meshed from nearly the beginning of Bennett’s term. Now, nine months after Hurricane Matthew and a period of effusive praise for Riley’s handling of it, the walls appear to be closing in on him.
Private council sessions, ostensibly held to discuss whether to fire him outright or perhaps try to negotiate a deal to get him to resign, have been held. Bennett, we’re hearing, finally has the votes on the council to make a move on Riley, who has been seeking a job elsewhere for at least a year.
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The move to oust Riley appears to have picked up momentum only recently, though the council discussed his employment three times last year.
At the end of April, the council let a deadline to keep Riley’s contract from renewing pass, meaning now, if they want to get rid of him, they will have to pay him unless they can show just cause for the dismissal. Somewhere between then and now, though, at least some of the council members who have been in Riley’s camp have had a change of heart, likely annoyed at his continuing job search that, at best, can be seen as a distraction and, at worst, as a morale killer.
In other words, enough is enough.
As The Island Packet has reported, the council quietly hired an outside legal counsel to negotiate Riley’s exit. Why it thinks Riley would accept anything less than his full exit payout is unclear. Riley’s contract includes a number of clauses which, when broken, the council could use to justify a firing with no payout. But unless it wants to try to argue his public job search has somehow harmed the town — a stretch, for sure — it appears no legal justification exists.
But the council can fire Riley without cause and then owe the manager a year’s salary and benefits. In Riley’s case, that would total about $240,000. How the community might react to Riley’s firing, and the costly price tag, is a different matter.
The concept that the town will ask Riley to leave is not only absurd. It’s embarrassing.
Riley has not talked about his situation, but obviously he sees the handwriting on the wall. He knows that town managers are subject to political shifts and that he has kept a lightning-rod job well beyond the norm. But it seemed likely Riley, through his hurricane heroics, would be able or willing to ride out what could be a one-term mayor.
Bennett campaigned on the platform that Hilton Head Island needs better planning, more vision, a fresh approach and a stronger hand in setting a successful future for the island. It is no surprise he ran into issues with a town manager who has been in place since 1995 and felt the town was running fine. Riley, to Bennett’s way of thinking, has been in the way.
Bennett came in the door favoring a strong-mayor form of government, which Hilton Head does not have. It has the council-manager form of government, in which Town Council hires a chief executive who hires a staff, runs daily operations and carries out the policies of council.
Maybe Bennett will eventually push to change the form of government, a move that would have to be approved by voters. Maybe with Riley gone, Bennett would be more likely to run for a second term. Regardless, he won’t be able to do everything he wants as fast as he wants.
I, for one, don’t think the system is broken.
During Riley’s tenure, I’ve seen the town make vast progress, even with occasional stumbles and a constant chorus of critics.
But if ever there were a final exam for town management, it was Hurricane Matthew. The Category 2 storm put a beat-down on Hilton Head in one night last October. Riley’s town staff aced the exam. It had a plan, a recovery contractor on site immediately, money squirreled away, a staff that evacuated and returned intact, and within days was back in business issuing building permits seven days a week.
It’s hard for we laymen to appreciate all that this entailed. But the people responded by naming Riley the grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. And Riley’s long-time allies at the Chamber of Commerce honored him with the John Curry Tourism Award.
Any credit or blame the town has gotten over all these years is shared by mayors, Town Council members and town staff.
But Riley has capably overseen the lifeblood of the community: beach nourishment to underwrite the economy, land acquisition for growth control, secondary roads for traffic flow, parks and beach access for quality of life.
He’s someone we know well from public gatherings, or the Rotary Club, or walking a beagle-like dog with his wife, Mary Jo. They raised their children here. They know us well, and we know them well.
Kind of like everything you’d want in a new town manager.