A current assistant city manager, two city administrators and a former county administrator all are vying for the position that will be vacant by the end of the year when Myrtle Beach’s city manager retires.
Whoever is hired to replace city manager Tom Leath, who’s been with the city for 29 years, will have to lead the city through next year’s Memorial Day weekend safety plans, continue to grow tourism – specifically sports tourism – and handle the city’s $156.7 million budget.
City officials have worked since May to come up with a safety plan for Memorial Day weekend, which turned deadly this year. Three people died and seven were injured in eight shootings that weekend on Ocean Boulevard.
Getting control of the weekend, when tens of thousands flock the Grand Strand to participate in Atlantic Beach Bikefest, Myrtle Beach Military Appreciation Days or to take advantage of a three-day weekend at the beach – is among the issues any new city manager would have to tackle.
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The four finalists – who were announced during Tuesday’s City Council meeting – include Myrtle Beach assistant city manager John Pedersen, Greer city administrator Ed Driggers, former James City County administrator Bob Middaugh and Easley city administrator Fox Simons.
Myrtle Beach Councilwoman Susan Grissom Means originally proposed three finalists Tuesday – Pedersen, Driggers and Simons – but Councilman Randal Wallace asked that Middaugh be included as well. Councilman Wayne Gray voted against including Middaugh as a finalist.
About 50 people applied to be the next city manager and executive search firm Georgia-based Slavin Management Consultants narrowed the applicants to about 18. City Council members interviewed six men as semi-finalists over the past month before announcing the finalists on Tuesday.
“This is the most important decision the Myrtle Beach City Council has had to make in the past 20 years,” Mayor John Rhodes said on Tuesday. “I’d like for us to take some time to think about each of these four candidates, which of them would be the best to lead our city.”
City Council members have called a special meeting for Monday, at which time they could possibly name the new manager.
City spokesman Mark Kruea said City Council only hires the city manager, city attorney and municipal judges. Were City Council to hire Pedersen, he could either appoint his replacement or the city could go through the hiring process again.
Driggers began working in government in 1996 after 13 years in the private sector, including a seven-month stint as a newspaper reporter in Chester after receiving bachelor of arts degree in public relations from the University of South Carolina.
Driggers also holds a masters in business administration from Winthrop University.
Driggers originally is from Lancaster – “born and bred” in South Carolina – and made the transition from plant superintendent and manager with Carolina Tank Corp. to Chester’s city administrator.
“The next move in the private sector would have been to Buffalo, New York ... and my wife and I didn’t want to leave South Carolina,” he said. “When I found out the city administrator job in Chester was open, I was already active in the community, especially with the chamber of commerce.”
Carolina Tank manufactured fuel tanks and air reservoirs for the heavy-duty truck industry.
“And I had to manage the budget, manage the personnel, capital items, and purchases in the private sector,” he said. “The only difference was that I did it for a private company. Now I provide services instead of providing widgets.”
Driggers said he was drawn to the position because Myrtle Beach already was well-managed by Leath and he said he sees many similarities between Myrtle Beach and Greer, where he now serves as city administrator. He has been in Greer since 2000.
“We have very similar dynamics from a growth standard,” he said. “In Myrtle Beach the industry is tourism. That industry is your bread and butter and you have to very consciously protect and grow that. I do feel very strongly there is a need and desire for long-term diversification of the economy.”
Middaugh said he always knew he wanted to work in municipal government after serving as an intern while in college.
“At 26, I was a city manager,” Middaugh said of his position at city administrator in Elk River, Minn.
Middaugh, originally from upstate New York, received a bachelor of arts degree in public administration from Miami University in Ohio and a master of arts degree in public administration from the University of Colorado.
He has served as a manager of six communities since 1978, most recently as county administrator in James City County, Va. The Board of Supervisors voted for his removal from the position in November 2013.
“I asked for a reason and was given no reason for the dismissal,” Middaugh wrote in his application with Myrtle Beach of his firing. “No issues about my performance had been raised at any time previous to the dismissal.”
Board of Supervisors member Jim Kennedy was among the three votes on the five-member board to vote for his dismissal last year.
“I regret the decision that was made to remove him from the position,” Kennedy said Wednesday. “It was an error. I think he’d do well in Myrtle Beach or anywhere he’s hired.”
Middaugh also spent nine years as the assistant city manager in Miami Beach, where officials experienced similar issues with crime and violence on Memorial Day weekend due to an unexpected surge in the number of people in town in 2001.
“We figured out how to manage the crowd there,” he said. “I’m confident I can do the same thing for Myrtle Beach.”
Pedersen, who originally is from Delaware, began with Myrtle Beach in 2002 as assistant city manager after serving for nearly 25 years with the city of Durham. Pedersen is one of two assistant city managers in Myrtle Beach.
All of his professional experience is in local government, he said.
Pedersen received his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Delaware before attending the University of North Carolina to receive a master of public administration degree.
While in his last semester at UNC, Pedersen learned of an opening with Durham.
“I originally planned to go back to Delaware, but I moved up to budget director pretty quickly,” he said. “We ended up putting down roots and staying for 24 years.”
Pedersen eventually served as assistant city manager in Durham for four years. He said after applying to be the city manager in Durham and not receiving the promotion, he felt like it was time for a change.
Pedersen said he has no plans to leave were he not selected for the position this time around.
“While earlier in my career my ambition was to be a city manager wherever that may take me, I now intend to finish my career serving the city of Myrtle Beach in whatever capacity City Council chooses,” he wrote in his application. “I believe, however, I can most effectively serve this community as its city manager.”
Assistant city manager Ron Andrews, who has worked with Pedersen since he joined the city in 2002, said he was not surprised when he learned that Pedersen was planning to apply for Leath’s position. From the time Leath announced his retirement, Andrews said he had no plans to apply for the job.
“John’s still a young man and that is the progression of what he’s done,” Andrews said. “I have certainly had a good working relationship with John and no matter how this turns out I think we’ll continue to have a good working relationship.”
Easley city attorney David Allison said he believes Simons is more than qualified to serve as the next city manager of Myrtle Beach.
“Quite frankly, he’s too qualified to stay here,” Allison said. “If Myrtle Beach doesn’t hire him, some other place will. He’s that good.”
Allison said he has worked with Simons since Simons began serving as city administrator in 2006. Previously, he worked his way through the ranks to become the interim director of Greenville’s office of management and budget.
“He’s very bright and matter-of-fact,” Allison said. “Coming in here, there’s some of a ‘good-old-boy’ mentality. But he’s not about who you know.”
A Syracuse, N.Y., native, Simons said sports tourism is a big deal in Easley, with the city hosting up to 60 sporting events each year with tournaments in sports ranging from baseball and softball to gymnastics and volleyball.
Simons received a bachelor of arts degree in history and political science and went on to receive a master’s degree in public administration.
Simons said he began working in the public sector because it’s “where the rubber meets the road.”
“You deal with real people with real problems,” he said. “I love it, this is great.”