Politics & Government

After public criticism, Hilton Head committee takes mayor’s hurricane pay off agenda

Town of Hilton Head Island officials removed mayoral compensation for work during hurricanes from their committee agenda Tuesday afternoon, citing “extra scrutiny” from the public on the issue after a report by The Island Packet.

“Given that people were expecting to have a lot more in-depth discussion on this — more than we were prepared to have — I didn’t want to not be able to fully engage in that discussion,” assistant town manager Josh Gruber said after he recommended that the issue be removed.

The agenda, which was made public Monday afternoon, included an item suggesting “language for providing compensation to the Mayor for hours worked during storm response.”

Contacted Monday, Mayor John McCann said he did not know who put the issue on the agenda or how much compensation would be discussed. McCann approves each committee agenda before it’s published.

McCann did not say anything Tuesday when the item was removed.

Gruber said Tuesday that he and town staff would collect more data before bringing the issue back to the committee.

He said the agenda item came out of staff’s post-hurricane discussions about how elected officials should be compensated for non-traditional working hours during storms.

During Hurricane Dorian, McCann and Town Manager Steve Riley spent the night with emergency management and fire rescue staff at the emergency operations center on the island. They received hourly briefings, and McCann did interviews with local and national media outlets during the storm.

Tree debris lays on the street at Port Royal Planation on Hilton Head Island after the eye of Hurricane Dorian traveled north off the South Carolina coast, Thursday September 5, 2019. Jessica Koscielniak / jkoscielniak@mcclatchy.com) Jessica Koscielniak

Asked what kind of data he will seek, Gruber said town staff needs to know how many hours McCann and Town Council members worked and how those hours can translate into meetings, which elected officials get paid to attend.

“Do we treat every separate function as one meeting?” he asked.

How do elected officials get paid?

The mayor and Hilton Head Island town council members are paid salaries, according to the municipal code of ordinances.

For town council members, that’s $12,800 per year. For McCann, it’s $25,000.

In addition to their salaries, elected officials can be paid $50 for each council and committee meeting and other council-related business meetings they attend.

But even their salaries and attendance fees are capped.

According to town code, the mayor cannot be paid more than $32,500 per fiscal year. For town council members, that annual limit is $20,300.

Both of those caps allow for about 150 meetings at $50 per meeting.

Shuttered windows block the light at the emergency operations center for the Hilton Head Fire & Rescue Division as Hurricane Dorian brings wind and rain to Hilton Head Island. The center is located on the north end of the island. Katherine Kokal The Island Packet

McCann, who served on the town council for six years before being elected mayor in 2018, said he went over the allotted number of meetings in both 2016 and 2017, the years Hurricanes Matthew and Irma hit the island. He said he wasn’t paid for that extra work.

In 2016, when McCann was chair of the finance and administrative committee, he suggested increasing the number of paid meetings for town council members and the mayor to $50. At the time, officials were paid $40 per meeting for up to 100 meetings.

The council unanimously approved the changes.

In 2017, The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette newspapers reported on the Bluffton Police Department’s overtime bills during Hurricane Matthew, which could have cost taxpayers up to $337,000.

During the storm, nearly every Bluffton police officer was paid for 195 hours of overtime. Beaufort County Sheriff’s deputies worked an average of 40.5 overtime hours.

According to that report, “The exception to this was (Beaufort County Sheriff P.J.) Tanner, who was recorded as working 112 overtime hours, but was not paid for it because of his position as an elected official.”

Public input

Typically a town meeting with slim attendance, the finance committee needed extra chairs in the small conference room for residents who came to the meeting on Tuesday.

Although the discussion on compensation was removed from the agenda, former planning commission chairperson Gail Quick asked to speak on the issue.

She said she had spoken to her friends and neighbors about the issue, and there is “deep concern about spending the town’s tax money for something they thought was already paid for.”

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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.