Liz Farrell

Some on Beaufort Co. Council want ‘the Josh thing’ to go away. Don’t let that happen | Opinion

Lately I’ve been asking around about Beaufort County Council members.

What are they like? Who are they?

Here’s a list of some of the words people who know them have used to describe those on County Council:

  • Dumb
  • Idiotic
  • Corrupt
  • Power hungry
  • Sneaky
  • Manipulative
  • Crazy
  • Nuts
  • A loon
  • Scared to speak up
  • Inexperienced
  • Clown
  • An ass
  • Mean
  • Flip-flopper
  • Incompetent
  • Died in 1922 and no one has figured out he’s the ghost that came with the building

I’m kidding about the last one, obviously, but how scary would that be if it were true?

Sadly, the idea of a haunted County Council chamber is no more terrifying than those harsh descriptors. And while they are far from fact of character, county residents should consider them when on the hunt for context about county governance.

Oh. Sorry. Did I cause you to lose consciousness because I keep saying “county”?

I know. It’s the most onomatopoetic word in all of human governance.

It’s faceless, humorless, windowless.

It lacks the vigor of “city” and the pluck of “town.”

If it were a cereal, “county” would be the one made of wheat shards and approved by 10 out of 12 horses.

If it were a nightclub, the bar at “county” would only serve water from the bubbler.

If it were a TV show, “county” would be the one that comes on only because your dog has changed the channel by stepping on the remote after it dropped from your hand because you’ve unintentionally fallen asleep on the couch.

Wait … sorry. That’s real.

It already is a TV show that no one watches.

Apologies, County Channel. But this is my point.

County business is a big deal.

However, it seems few county residents have been paying close attention to what has been happening in our county government.

Myself included. Because I’ll be honest, I’d almost rather attend a 12-hour reading of Chester Arthur’s dream journal than one Beaufort County Council meeting.

My addled attention span, deeply impatient spirit and shameful inclination toward apathy can’t handle it.

I’m obviously not alone.

Which is exactly how upside-down versions of government come into existence.

(Pssst: Chester Arthur was the 21st president of the United States and probably dreamed about different types of covered wagons.)

Earlier this month, the county received the findings from an attorney hired by council to investigate the legality of a $24K consulting contract that former interim county administrator Josh Gruber wrote for himself with the help and approval of the county attorney and soon-to-be interim county administrator, Thomas Keaveny, right before Gruber left to become the assistant town manager for Hilton Head Island last summer.

They did this secretly and without council oversight, according to previous reporting by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.

Soon after learning that this report had been released to council, the Packet and the Gazette filed a Freedom of Information Act request for it — because it is a public document about public employees who were conducting public business on behalf of the public.

The county — on the advice of Keaveny, who was one of the subjects of the investigation and as such should have recused himself from offering any hot takes on the matter — rejected the request because they considered the report to be exempt from public disclosure and cited “attorney-client privilege,” forgetting, I guess, that this client they were speaking of is technically you.

That’s right. You are the client. The people who voted to hire the attorney are there to represent you. They campaigned for that responsibility. You granted it to them. You paid for the report. And you have the right to know whether juicy bye-bye deals using your cash are being made in good faith.

In the meantime, while the county and council were, I don’t know, getting their talking points straight perhaps, a summary of the report was being leaked to the newspapers.

Here is what was among the findings in that 12-page document. (You should warn anyone who might be in the room with you right now that you are about to say “WHAT!” a lot):

  • Gruber is still the interim county administrator because council doesn’t know the rules of parliamentary procedure and never rescinded his appointment
  • Which means Keaveny never actually had the authority to sign off on Gruber’s contract because he was Gruber’s employee at the time
  • The county “does not manage its assets well”; specifically, it has no formal system of tracking laptops and other electronic equipment purchased with tax money for use by public employees
  • The procurement policy — the rules by which the county offers potentially lucrative and usually sought-after contracts to vendors — is “vague”
  • Two county lawyers — Gruber and Keaveny — appear not to have been aware of a basic South Carolina employment law that requires a one-year gap between when a public employee leaves his job and when he later becomes a contractor for that same employer
  • Keaveny was “coerced” into taking the interim administrator position by the council chairman at the time
  • Which Keaveny believed Keaveny wasn’t qualified for, if Keaveny did say so himself, which Keaveny did ... to the council chairman at the time
  • There are currently an unknown number of open-ended consulting contracts with other unnamed former county employees who had unspecified “institutional knowledge”
  • All but one person interviewed by the investigator said they wanted “the Josh thing” to go away so they can “go back to the business of running the county”

Let’s unpack that last bit of information because it is the most important part of the summary.

When those who are entrusted with public works are dismissive of a sticky issue and reductive of anyone who is questioning them on it, and when they offer exasperation as a solution — everyone should just move on already! — consider that to be a hunt dog, stopped with his paw held up and his nose down.

He is signaling to you, county resident.

He is saying, “Something is there, county resident.”

He is telling you, “You have been on the right track, county resident.”

One more time: Most of those interviewed by the investigator said they want “the Josh thing” to go away so they can return to doing what they were doing before, which is making the types of decisions and providing the sort of leadership that contribute to “Josh things” occurring in the first place.

That they want to return to how it was before anyone was interested in inconveniencing them with inquiry is unsurprising — but it should absolutely alarm you and it should color future assessment.

We shouldn’t allow council to duck and cover on this nor any other issue of public concern.

We should let council know that we expect higher standards of transparency and better stewardship of our dollars.

And we should watch them all a little more closely.

Because, guess what, we too are capable of having “institutional knowledge.”

Columnist and senior editor Liz Farrell graduated from Gettysburg College with a degree in political science and writes about a wide range of topics, including Bravo’s “Southern Charm.” She has lived in the Lowcountry for 15 years, but still feels like a fraud when she accidentally says “y’all.”