Other Views

Pepper Hall deal shows why County Council members should butt out of day-to-day operations

When you write Beaufort County that fat property tax check next month, try not to think about this.

There is a 13-stall stables with a comfortable, three-bedroom apartment upstairs on the 18-acre portion of the Pepper Hall property that Beaufort County bought in 2014 for $4 million from Robert Graves for the purpose of protecting the headwaters of the Okatie River. There is also a one-bedroom apartment on the building’s ground floor.

Market rent for all this would easily be $5,000 a month. But Beaufort County is collecting nothing.

Recently “a Graves family member has been using the upstairs apartment, although not full-time,” County Council Vice Chairman Jerry Stewart says. Yet there is no lease that grants to anyone any right to use any portion of the building, Beaufort County Attorney Thomas Keaveny II says, and the county has collected no rents there, he confirms.

Here’s why.

Shortly after Beaufort County acquired the property, then-Deputy County Administrator Josh Gruber prepared a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the building. But when the RFP went to the County Council’s Finance Committee, chaired by Council Vice Chairman Jerry Stewart, staff was told to leave the building empty. Council members Brian Flewelling, Rick Caporale and Steven G. Fobes were also on that committee.

Stewart, running for S.C. House Seat 120 the year before, had accepted a $1,000 campaign contribution from Robert Graves Sr., South Carolina State Ethics Commission records show.

Last spring, it was brought to then-Acting County Administrator Gruber’s attention that a Graves family member was using the upstairs apartment. Did I mention the apartment features a finished upstairs loft and a porch that overlooks the Okatie?

Gruber quite correctly said, “No one can live there without a lease. If County Council won’t authorize me to evict her, we’ll just turn off the lights.”

The disconnect decision was taken by staff to the County Council’s Development Agreement Subcommittee. In executive session, although the matter is not a proper executive-session topic, staff was told: You’re too emotional. Let it go. We’re negotiating with Mr. Graves. Don’t upset things.

That subcommittee is comprised of Jerry Stewart and Council members Brian Flewelling and Michael E. Covert.

Today the county still does not have control of the building.

Meanwhile, the Development Agreement Subcommittee has blessed a deal that has passed County Council’s first reading to develop Pepper Hall’s other 84 acres that, according to Stewart, “incorporates into the whole development the county’s open 18 acres to be used as a part of the development’s open space requirement. It’s a win-win.”

Except it is not “a win” that 18 acres that were purchased to protect the headwaters of the Okatie River will become in effect the private park of a new 2,000-plus unit development.

This sort of cozy, secretive and spin-doctored sloppiness is what ends up happening when elected officials with little or no oversight run governments.

Favoritism like this is why the Council-Administrator form of government — that by law requires council members to leave solely to the administrator the running of a county’s day-to-day operations, including negotiating its real estate deals — is the prevalent form of government across South Carolina’s counties.

But the law has no teeth. And today under the the County Council’s committee system, council members are often running the day-to-day.

The Pepper Hall saga shows Beaufort County needs a full-time county administrator now to clean up, among other things, its committee system.

And, by the way, it shows also why some council members don’t want that.

Bill Rauch is a Beaufort writer and former mayor.