Politics & Government

Hilton Head town lawyer to leave job 1 week after calling black committee ‘you people’

Islander tells Hilton Head mayor staffer “needs to go” after discriminatory comment

At Tuesday's Hilton Head Island town council meeting, a resident complained of town employee referring to people outside gated communities as “you people,” before quickly correcting himself.
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At Tuesday's Hilton Head Island town council meeting, a resident complained of town employee referring to people outside gated communities as “you people,” before quickly correcting himself.

One week after being heavily criticized for referring to members of a Gullah-Geechee committee as “you people” during a public meeting, Town of Hilton Head Island staff attorney Brian Hulbert is leaving his job in what is being characterized as a retirement.

The comment came during the June 3 meeting of the Gullah-Geechee Cultural and Land Preservation Task Force in which the committee discussed fire hydrant locations and lack of access for native islanders.

Hulbert quickly corrected himself to say “your communities,” but the comment was met with gasps by the all-black committee members at the meeting and sparked public criticism.

Town Manager Steve Riley was circumspect when asked about Hulbert’s departure.

He called Hulbert’s remark “inappropriate” but would not say whether Hulbert’s retirement was forced or if Hulbert would have been fired if he had not retired voluntarily.

Hulbert, 60, will be paid according to his salary — $119,482 — until his retirement date of July 8, even though Riley said he was unsure if Hulbert will return to work.

“He has a relative who is ill, (and) I’m not sure he will be back in,” Riley said.

A call to Hulbert’s office extension reflected a new voicemail message referring callers to assistant town manager Josh Gruber. An email sent to Hulbert’s address was not immediately returned.

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Hilton Head town staff attorney Brian Hulbert, far right, corrects himself on June 3, 2019 while talking to the Gullah-Geechee Land and Cultural Preservation Taskforce about fire hydrant location restrictions moments after he addressed the group as “you people.” Katherine Kokal kkokal@islandpacket.com

Hulbert also will receive a payout for his unused vacation days, according to town human resources director, Angie Stone.

The town does not have a pension-like benefit package for administrative employees, she said.

Hulbert has been with the town since 2005 and accrues 3.6 weeks of vacation each year, Stone said. She said could not release the number of days Hulbert will be paid out but said that will be available after it is paid.

What happened?

At last week’s meeting, native islander Morris Campbell said Hulbert’s use of “you people” was offensive and represented a “1950s and 1960s attitude” toward people of color.

Hulbert interrupted Campbell’s comments and said, “I don’t need a lecture.”

He apologized to Campbell separately after the meeting adjourned.

Ward 1 representative Marc Grant publicly addressed the comments the following day at the Hilton Head Town Council meeting, where he said the term was used to “separate and demean a person,” and that members of the task force and the audience were offended by its use.

Alex Brown, who sits on the task force, also was critical.

“This has to stop. No one on this island — no one on this Earth — is a second-class citizen,” Brown said. “We are all equal.

“I’ve been here all my life,” he added. “My parents, elders, (and) others in the community have taught me to respect one another. Doesn’t matter what you look like or who you are — that’s what Hilton Head represents. If Mr. Hulbert can’t respect that then he needs to go.”

At Tuesday's Hilton Head Island town council meeting, a resident complained of town employee referring to people outside gated communities as “you people,” before quickly correcting himself.

Five days later, assistant town manager Josh Gruber announced Hulbert’s retirement in an email to town staff.

Asked Tuesday for comment, Riley said he couldn’t comment on specific personnel matters but that “language like that does not help improve relationships at all.”

Now what?

The town will hire a new staff attorney, according to Riley. Until that happens, assistant town manager Gruber and town attorney Curtis Coltrane will handle Hulbert’s duties.

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The Gullah-Geechee Land and Cultural Preservation Taskforce discusses fire hydrant location restrictions with town staff attorney Brian Hulbert, far right, and Town of Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue Chief Brad Tadlock and Fire Marshal Joheida Fister. Katherine Kokal The Island Packet

Hulbert’s departure isn’t a win for native islanders or political correctness, leader Brown said.

“I don’t want this to come across as a complete victory because someone has removed themselves from the situation,” he said Tuesday. “There’s a culture there that is in complete defense of the way (the) town does business.”

Brown, who is the former planning commission chairman, said the town handles incidents through a self-reporting process.

He suggested “back and forth” incidents between town staff and specifically Gullah-Geechee residents need to be better reported and addressed by training.

“As our town continues to become more and more diversified in race, gender and religion, I think we need to be offering up opportunities for not only new staff members, but old staff members because we’ve got some folks who have been here for awhile,” Brown said.

An earlier version of this article referred to the Gullah-Geechee Land and Cultural Preservation Task Force as an all-black committee. The story was edited to reflect the record that all of the members present at the meeting were black.

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.

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