Politics & Government

Beaufort County interim administrator resigns, leaving county without a leader

Beaufort County’s interim administrator resigned Tuesday evening, two months after he assumed the role and just one day after County Council members voted to investigate the legality of his decision to pay the former interim administrator $12,000 a month for consultation work.

Tom Keaveny — who took over for former interim county administrator Josh Gruber on July 23 — will step down as interim administrator Oct. 15, according to Council Chairman Paul Sommerville. He had originally submitted his resignation to take effect Oct. 1, but Sommerville convinced Keaveny to stay on two extra weeks to give council more time to find his replacement.

Keaveny will stay on as the county’s staff attorney, a position he has held since May 2015 and has continued to hold while interim administrator.

Keaveny’s resignation is the latest in a long line of snafus and setbacks for County Council, which has struggled to fill the administrator role since former administrator Gary Kubic announced his retirement in September 2017.

Council members do not yet know how soon the position will be filled after Keaveny’s last day.

In a phone call Wednesday, Sommerville said he was “extremely disappointed” about the resignation.

“I’m going to call a meeting with my executive committee and hopefully work something out by the end of this week,” he said of filling the position. “We’re without both a county administrator and deputy county administrator. We haven’t been in that position since ancient times.”

When asked whether he thought the Finance Committee’s decision Monday to investigate Gruber’s lucrative contract with the county had anything to do with Keaveny’s resignation, Sommerville said, “You were at the meeting. You know what happened.”

Keaveny did not return requests for comment Wednesday via phone messages, text messages and email.

Councilman Mike Covert, who is one of four committee members who voted to hire outside counsel to investigate the legality of the contract, said that he appreciated Keaveny’s work with the county as interim administrator, but would be concerned if he found out the contract is the reason behind the resignation.

“I really like Tom (Keaveny),” Covert said. “He’s a great guy. It’s nothing personal. But if he resigned because of the contract, that’ll ramp (the investigation) up.”

The contract

The topic of hiring an administrator has been a divisive one for council members.

Gruber, who was deputy administrator under Kubic, was considered by some council members to be the obvious choice to replace Kubic.

After two attempts at fielding outside candidates, however, council ultimately passed on him.

On Saturday, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette reported that Keaveny signed the contract with Gruber on July 24, which was a day after County Council’s chaotic vote to hire an administrator.

During that night, council voted to hire Gruber, who had already resigned from the county and had not formally applied for council’s second round of hiring. Moments later, however, council withdrew that vote and later in the night voted to hire an outside candidate who immediately rejected the offer.

In the contract that Keaveny entered into with Gruber, the county agreed to pay Gruber $12,000 a month for at least two months to advise the county on daily operations — when Gruber isn’t on the clock with the Town of Hilton Head Island, where he is now the full-time assistant town manager.

Gruber said he wrote the contract himself.

While Sommerville, who has consistently supported Gruber throughout the county administrator search and who voted to hire Gruber in July, said he had known about the contract a few days prior to the rest of council, at least four council members have said they were never told directly.

Keaveny defended the contract Monday in a prepared statement before the Finance Committee.

“Despite everything you may have heard and despite everything you may have read, I entered into this contract with Mr. Gruber for three reasons, and three reasons only,” he said, citing the protection of Beaufort County’s money and residents as two reasons and ensuring a smooth transition as the third.

Despite anger from some members of County Council that they were not informed of the contract before it was signed, the county’s finance committee voted to extend the contract into November, citing the end of hurricane season as the reason.

Doing so gives Gruber an extra $12,000, meaning he will receive a total of $36,000 from Beaufort County once the contract runs out. Sommerville confirmed Wednesday that Gruber’s consulting contract will not be affected by Keaveny’s resignation.

Councilman Rick Caporale said he was sorry Keaveny decided to back out “so abruptly.” But, given the county’s inability to find a permanent replacement, Caporale said he thinks something needs to change, even if that means waiting until after the general election this November, when seven seats are up for a vote.

Four of the current council members are not running for re-election.

“The feeling (among council) was to leave this issue alone until the new council steps in (in January),” he said. “I agreed with that.”

Covert said this change may need to happen at the top.

“I trust that (County Council) leadership will do the right thing, or there needs to be new leadership,” he said.