Bona fide beefs or petty power play? Criticisms leveled against Hilton Head town manager in annual review

Staff photo

Longtime Hilton Head town manager Steve Riley lacks, among other things, initiative and “strategic leadership,” according to the only formal review of him since mayor David Bennett took office in December 2014.

The six-page August 2015 evaluation, obtained recently by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, contrasts sharply in style and substance with the 19 largely glowing reviews that Riley received under three former mayors.

It’s no secret that Bennett and Riley have been at odds with each other from the start. But the 2015 evaluation is the first known — and so far only — formal town document to shed light on the fractured relationship.

Riley, the town manager since 1995, has applied at least four times for out-of-state government jobs since last summer . In July, the Packet and Gazette revealed that the seven-member Town Council last summer secretly hired a powerful law firm, at a taxpayer cost of at least $11,500, to deal with Riley’s employment situation — most likely an exit strategy.

In the 2015 review, council members anonymously shared their opinions on Riley’s work performance in 12 areas for the fiscal year covering July 1, 2014, through June 30, 2015. Most of it was positive — Riley garnered an overall numerical score of between “satisfactory” and “exceptional,” and also received a $5,000 bonus that year.

But there were negative comments peppered throughout the evaluation:

“At the time I took office, the Town Manager evidenced a subtle, yet firm opposition to discussion of changes and modifications necessary (to) town council initiatives …”

“... Could take more of a role in establishing priorities and keeping us focused. Must assure that communication between he and the Mayor is appropriate, whatever it takes.”

"Steve is uneasy with new Council and still trying to find how best to work in tandem."

“At times appears to be following staff vs. leading staff.”

“Steve and staff need to figure out a better way to communicate what the town does for the public.”

A concluding section offered this remark: “Town Manager can move to the next level if he motivates himself to do so.”

Contacted over the past week by the Packet and Gazette, Riley and Bennett each declined to comment on specifics in the 2015 evaluation. Riley declined to comment more generally on what has been causing the rift between him and the mayor. Bennett said he does not perceive any conflict between them.

Riley, the town’s highest-paid employee at $175,203 annually, said he took the 2015 review as “constructive criticism and moved on.”

On the evaluation itself, Riley wrote in response, “While I disagree with a number of the comments and observations contained in this document, I have chosen to regard this as constructive criticism and to not undertake a point-by-point rebuttal but to move forward in a spirit of cooperation with Council.”

Several current and former council members told the Packet and Gazette recently they didn’t author the negative comments about Riley in his 2015 review.

Mayor pro tem Kim Likins, a Bennett supporter, declined to say whether she wrote any of the criticisms but acknowledged there have been communication issues between the two men, though she also said she believes they have a better working relationship now.

Contacted by the newspapers, two former mayors — Tom Peeples and Drew Laughlin — who worked with Riley for a collective 18 years, and ex-councilman Lee Edwards contend that soon after he was elected, Bennett created a negative working environment for Riley.

“It became apparent from the very beginning that mayor Bennett was not going to get along with Steve Riley,” said Edwards, who noted he didn’t write any negative comments in Riley’s 2015 evaluation.

Bennett disputed Edwards’ statements, telling the newspapers he didn’t “share that perspective.”

Closed-door discussions

Since June 2016, Town Council has met at least six times in closed sessions to discuss Riley’s employment situation, meeting minutes show. Documents provided last month to the newspapers under the Freedom of Information Act show that the council secretly hired the Columbia-based McNair Law Firm to provide legal advice on the matter.

To date, the town has spent $11,500 from the Town Council authorized legal fees line item, records show. Brian Hulbert, staff attorney for the town, said recently the McNair firm is expected to submit another legal bill soon.

Bennett could not say when the meetings with McNair might end, but said they are working with Riley. Regarding the job search, Bennett said Riley has “indicated to all of us it’s not about his relationship with us, but personal objectives of his family.”

Despite Town Council’s multiple meetings over the past year on the Riley situation, there has been no approved evaluation of the town manager since August 2015, records show. The council met on Aug. 16, 2016, in a closed session regarding Riley’s subsequent annual evaluation, but a final, written version was never approved, according to meeting minutes.

Hulbert recently informed the Packet and Gazette that because the written comments for the 2016 evaluation were prepared in executive session and a final draft was not approved, the preliminary draft would not be released publicly. He also said Riley had not seen Town Council’s comments in that evaluation.

Several council members said recently last year’s evaluation process ceased primarily because of Hurricane Matthew, which hit the island on Oct. 8. Yet documents provided last month to the newspapers show that the McNair Law Firm provided legal advice to the council about Riley’s employment situation shortly after the hurricane — on Oct. 11 and again on Oct. 31.

No evaluation of Riley has been initiated this year.

Last month, Bennett told the newspapers that Town Council hired McNair because it wanted to make sure the town manager position remained filled if Riley took a job elsewhere. Since the summer of 2016, Riley has been a finalist for a city administrator position in Davenport, Iowa, and city manager positions in Forney, Texas, and Savannah. Most recently, he was a finalist for a city manager position in San Marcos, Texas. He was not offered any of those positions.

Contacted by the Packet and Gazette, Ron Holifield, CEO of Strategic Government Resources, which oversaw the search for the San Marcos city manager position, said he and others involved in the selection process were “definitely aware” of the tension between Riley and Bennett, though he added it didn’t stop Riley from being named a finalist.

San Marcos City Council members would not comment on whether the relationship between Bennett and Riley influenced their hiring decision.

Hiding behind anonymity

As for the 2015 evaluation, current Hilton Head Town Council members John McCann and Marc Grant told the newspapers recently they didn’t author the anonymous criticisms of Riley, but declined to comment on whether they perceived any negativity between Riley and Bennett. Councilman Tom Lennox didn’t return multiple calls seeking comment, and councilman Bill Harkins declined to say whether he wrote any of the comments.

Likins also declined to say whether she authored any of the comments, but said negative was too strong a word to describe the working relationship between Riley and Bennett.

“What I believe I witnessed was a communication difference,” she said. “I think (Bennett) had a different communication style than what (Riley) was used to, and we all had to learn to adapt.”

But former mayor Peeples, who served from 1996-2010, said that from the beginning of Bennett’s term, Riley was made to feel that “his input wasn’t important and that they didn’t really care what he thought,” adding, “It’s the idea that ‘he’s the town manager, and I’ll tolerate him as long as I have to.’”

‘Best town manager in the state’

Before Bennett took office, previous evaluations involved meetings among Town Council and Riley to discuss his performance. A written evaluation — typically a one-page letter drafted by the mayor — would be approved by council members indicating they were satisfied with Riley’s job performance, according to Nancy Gasen, the town’s director of human resources.

Gasen said after Bennett was elected, she was approached by the council’s Finance and Administrative Committee in 2015 to help them draft a formal document for evaluating Riley. McCann, who was on the committee at the time, said he was involved with creating the document at the direction of Bennett.

In the 2015 online form, Town Council members individually and anonymously rated and provided comments on Riley in 12 categories: strategic planning/leadership, council and policy facilitation, organization effectiveness, service delivery management, budgeting, financial analysis, human resources management, technological literacy, advocacy and interpersonal communication, presentation skills and media relations, integrity, and personal development.

Riley received a lump sum bonus of $5,000 in 2015, which was not unusual, according to Gasen. Since 1995, Riley had received either a base salary increase or a one-time bonus between $1,500 and $7,750, which Gasen said was merit-based, with nearly all of his performance evaluations. Riley has not received a salary increase or a bonus since 2015.

A marked difference between the 2015 evaluation of Riley and the earlier reviews can be found in the evaluation letters signed by the respective mayors.

Typically, the letters signed by Chapman, Peeples and Laughlin said Town Council was pleased with Riley’s performance. The evaluation letter signed by Laughlin in 2014 — the year Bennett won the mayor’s seat — goes as far to state, “We have the best Town Manager in the State.”

No such praise was listed in the cover letter that accompanied the 2015 review and was signed by Bennett. A single sentence in the letter said Town Council voted to give Riley the $5,000 bonus and “recognize your efforts.”

“I think it’s a shame we are where we are,” said Laughlin about Riley’s current employment situation. “I think we will have a hard time replacing him.”

Related stories from Hilton Head Island Packet