Last Monday morning when Tom Leath woke up, for the first time in 27 years he no longer was the city manager of Myrtle Beach.
“It was pretty sweet,” he said of his first week not being in charge of the city after 27 years. “It is weird, when you’ve done something for 30 years, not to do it anymore.”
After serving as the Myrtle Beach city manager for those 27 years, Leath, 63, stepped aside Monday to hand control of the city to John Pedersen, who had served as assistant city manager for almost 13 years.
Leath still is working for the city, but he no longer is in charge. He moved out of the office where he’d sat for 27 years serving as the city’s manager and moved down the hall to what was a room used for scanning documents.
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“I took my laptop down there and they got me set up,,” he said. “I’m going through some files and putting notes on them on where they should go, if they need to go back to other departments. ... And I went to a few meetings. I haven’t worked hard – it’s been pretty nice.”
He’ll work until the end of the year to help with any transition issues Pedersen may face and will prepare documents for City Council meetings, which said he’ll attend for the rest of the year.
“I’m not sure where I’ll sit [at City Council meetings],” Leath said.
As city manager, he sat on the dais with the council members, city attorney and city clerk. Pedersen sat a table and would operate a laptop with visuals for the meeting, but on Tuesday he’ll be joining City Council on the dais.
“I’m not very good with computers, so I don’t think I’ll run the laptop,” he said. “I’ll probably sit on the front row. Or maybe I’ll sit over there with [city spokesman] Mark [Kruea] and bother him.”
Leath said once he finishes going through his files, he likely won’t be in the office as much.
“I think I’m better off out of the way,” he said. “I’m not serving much of a function. I’m sitting around twiddling my thumbs waiting for transition issues [to help with].”
Love of Myrtle Beach
Since becoming city manager in 1987, Leath said he never had any plans to go anywhere else.
“Head hunters would call, but I never was interested,” he said. “I knew I wanted to stay in Myrtle Beach. Many city managers spend a few years with the goal of moving up to bigger and bigger cities. That was never something I wanted to do. ... I’ve never interviewed anywhere else.”
As city manager, he’s been required to live in city limits but says he has no plans to go anywhere now that he has the freedom to do so.
“I’m not retiring away – this is paradise,” he said. “I might spend a few months in Florida in the winter because it’s warmer, but I’m not leaving.”
For the bulk of the past 27 years, Leath has gotten up around 4 a.m., had a cup of coffee and read the newspaper, and headed out for City Hall around 6 a.m., taking a different route each time.
“I drive around the city and look it over,” Leath said.
He takes note of what looks out of place – a bag of trash, an illegal sign, a light that’s gone out – and either takes care of it himself or lets people in the proper departments know.
“He sees things driving around that no one else sees,” Leath’s longtime partner Cathy Christman said. “He keeps a hammer in the car and he’ll go and fix a loose plank if he sees one. He’ll stop the car and jump out in his suit and pick up some trash or a dilapidated box. ... And then when he gets home he’ll have all of this trash to [throw out].”
Many department heads reveled at the fact that Leath gives them autonomy to do their jobs. Leath has said that if he’s had a skill, it’s for hiring the right people.
“I think the tenure and length of the department heads speaks to the city’s leadership and the job you’ve done,” police Chief Warren Gall said during a farewell lunch held Oct. 29 for Leath with the department heads.
Department heads each took turns telling stories of Leath’s tenure – “So many stories, so little time,” budget director Michael Shelton said during the lunch – all showcasing their shared sense of humor, something Leath said he looked for when hiring.
He leaned back on the rear legs of his chair in Vidalia’s restaurant in the Sheraton Myrtle Beach Convention Center Hotel laughing while each took turns sharing funny stories.
“Get a box, get your [stuff], and get out,” city attorney Tom Ellenburg said during his turn, causing the room to erupt in laughter.
Working with the group of people he’s assembled over the years will be the thing he misses most when he leaves at the end of the year, he said.
“I guess that’s cliché, but the department heads are a funny, good, talented group,” he said. “And we’ve got a lot of good people that work for them.”
Leath said he loves the city and just wants what’s best for it – taking several breaks from a tree-planting event Oct. 30 to pick up a stray piece of trash and throw it away.
“He’s always doing that,” City Councilman Randal Wallace said.
Relationship with City Council
Leath said he’s worked to ensure he didn’t become close with any of the council members he’s worked with over the years.
“Keep council at arm’s length,” he said of any advice he would give Pedersen as he takes over as city manager. “Give them all the information you think they need and tell them when you think they’ve not made a good decision.”
Wallace said while thinking about Leath’s retirement he realized he first met Leath while a student in high school before he ever considered running for City Council.
“Do you remember that?” Wallace asked Leath.
“No,” Leath said, laughing.
While he doesn’t remember meeting Wallace in the ‘80s, Leath said that he appreciates Wallace’s honesty and integrity.
“I try not to have favorites, but Randal is my favorite council member,” Leath said. “He’s a good guy. He’s genuine. He’s honest. He really is, ‘what you see is what you get.’”
Leath also has consciously kept to himself in Myrtle Beach, joining few social clubs and having very few people he would consider very close friends.
“I’m not a joiner,” he said. “I don’t have many friends. I go to Rotary [Club], but that’s about it. I’m not a member of any of the country clubs. I don’t belong to any one church. I don’t run in any circles. I didn’t want to be put in the position where it seemed like I was playing favorites [when making decisions for the city].”
Johnny Weaver of Pawleys Island, one of the few people he calls a friend, said Leath is a very private person, but he doesn’t have any hidden agendas.
“He bases his decisions on facts and not any personal [feelings],” Weaver said. “You don’t see him getting involved in any political things. You probably don’t even know if he’s a Republican or a Democrat, right? I’m a good friend of his and I don’t know, either. That’s what makes him a good city manager.
“And he’s really even-tempered and really funny,” Weaver said.
Myrtle Beach’s transformation over 30 years
Leath joined city staff in 1985 as the assistant city attorney, was quickly promoted to assistant city manager and when the manager at the time – Richard Marvin – was “asked to leave,” Leath was selected in 1987 from a pool of candidates from across the country.
More than 50 high-rises, the closing of the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base and creation of The Market Common, the construction of the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk and Promenade and the expansion of the Myrtle Beach Convention Center all have taken place under Leath’s leadership.
“[Planning department Director] Jack Walker said the other day that 50 high-rises have been built and hopefully we have created a climate for that type of growth,” Leath said. “I think we’ve created a climate where the business world can prosper. ... We’ve been able to grow the commercial side without destroying the residential side. We’ve been able to protect the residents from the negative aspects of commercial growth.”
But Leath doesn’t point to any one structure as what he considers to be his legacy as he prepares to retire.
“[I hope my legacy is] that I cared about the city and the people in it, and tried to make decisions that were based for the greater good and not for the individual good,” Leath said. “I’d rather be remembered for caring about the people.”
When Leath began as city manager the Grand Strand largely still was considered a place to visit during the summer season, but businesses and the city have worked to make it a year-round destination.
“We’ve always seen ourselves as part of the tourism machine,” he said. “We went into it in a big way after the recession with the 1 percent tax to fund [tourism] promotion and we started, in earnest, building things that would be venues for tourism.”
Only two years into his tenure as city manager, Leath faced what he said was his biggest challenge in 27 years – recovering from Hurricane Hugo.
“That was a test right there,” he said. “The police chief and I went out to the oceanfront to assess the damage. A lot of the furniture from the first-floor rooms of the hotels were out in the middle of Ocean Boulevard. I was thinking, ‘Holy smoke, we have got some work to do.’”
Leath said for the next three weeks, city staff essentially worked nonstop to clean up the city.
“We worked from sunrise ‘til 8 or 9 at night for three weeks straight,” he said. “The key to recovery after any kind of disaster is for the population to see the government getting to work. You’ve got to send that message. We did not take a break for three weeks straight.”
Bruce Boulineau, director of the city’s construction services, said working with Leath during those times were a lot like working with him any other time – he was allowed to do what he needed for his department and consulted with Leath on major decisions.
“Within 12 weeks we were just about back into full swing,” Boulineau said. “He was very adamant about getting things back in the swing and open – make sure it’s safe, but he wanted things to be open.”
North Myrtle Beach spokesman Pat Dowling was serving as Myrtle Beach’s spokesman at the time and said Leath’s response to Hurricane Hugo was his defining moment as a city manager.
“The morning after Hurricane Hugo hit we went down to the beach – what was left of it – and he walked out on this long stormwater drainage pipe that went out to the ocean,” he said. “It used to be under the sand, but the sand was gone.
“He stood out there with his hands on his hips for a few minutes,” Dowling said. “Then he came back and we got in the car and looked over the rest of the damage. He was one of those people who didn’t like people to see him sweat. He made some decisions on that pipe and decided to rebuild bigger and better. And the they did.”
The ‘crazy mayor’ years
Leath said one of the other big challenges he faced was working with former Mayor Mark McBride, who was in office from 1997 to 2005.
“Of course, the crazy mayor years [were difficult],” he said. “That was a big waste of time and energy on everybody’s part.”
McBride had accused Leath of mismanaging city funds, making back-room decisions and used the police department like a personal security force. Leath had said he was ready to resign when McBride was re-elected in 2001, but he and McBride agreed to work together.
McBride said last week there were a number of reasons he had issues with Leath’s management of the city, such as the city’s involvement in the Sheraton Myrtle Beach Convention Center Hotel and the way The Market Common was established.
Leath said he just stayed focused on what the city needed and tried not to let McBride get to him.
“My mother always told me to consider the source and let it go,” he said. “I figured I wasn’t going to get too distracted. You just have to keep your eye on the ball.”
Developer David Stradinger, who served as the city’s first city manager, said when he left the position when he was 33 years old he felt like being city manager was a young man’s job.
“I had a really good group of elected officials when I was there,” Stradinger said. “He didn’t always have that. I don’t know how he made it through that. Those were just extremely trying times.”
Stradinger said Leath did a good job keeping the city under control as what he referred to as a “stewardship manager.”
“There are stewardship city managers,” he said. “They’re steady and hold the helm of the boat and keep them going. ... Tom did a great job of keeping a steady hand on the tiller and never got too far from where he was headed in either direction.”
Friends said the way he handled the years McBride was in office speak to Leath’s cool demeanor.
“Even when Mark McBride was trying to get him fired, he was upset about it, but he never said anything disparaging about him,” Weaver said. “I get mad as the devil and I let everybody know it. Tom seems to take everything in stride.”
McBride said he wishes Leath well in his retirement, but the city’s issues shouldn’t be ignored.
“There are many, many issues and just because its a celebration of his retirement the issues become secondary,” McBride said. “The city has, per capita, exponentially increased the debt. And probably the blackest day in the history of the city was Memorial Day. And there are no plans in place at this time. So he rides off into the sunset and the city still has dire issues facing it in 2015.”
When asked about his disappointments over the years, Leath pauses and takes a breath before answering like he often does when pondering some tougher questions.
Three people died and seven were injured during Memorial Day weekend this year, causing Myrtle Beach and surrounding areas to work to come up with a safety plan for next year. Thousands of people travel to 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.
Myrtle Beach police hosted a law enforcement summit in September where they invited officers from across the East Coast to share best and worst practices for policing special events.
Myrtle Beach released preliminary plans in September with options for getting crime under control including instituting a dedicated emergency lane and only allowing one-way southbound traffic on Ocean Boulevard between 29th Avenue North and Kings Highway.
Myrtle Beach officials also proposed a 40-mile traffic loop that would send traffic from Ocean Boulevard onto Kings Highway, south to S.C. 544, west to S.C. 31, north to S.C. 22, east to U.S. 17 and back south to Myrtle Beach.
The traffic loop has caused concerns for nearby municipalities and officials are working to try to find an acceptable alternative.
“The focus needs to be keeping traffic moving and having the emergency lane,” Leath said. “We need to get our partners to agree to a reasonable loop. That will help get things under control next year.”
Leath said it was upsetting that there was such tragedy this year, especially since the crowds seemed to be getting smaller over the years and the city had gone a while without any disastrous incidents.
He said his biggest disappointment as city manager was a failed attempt to annex about 659 acres in to city limits. City staff collected signatures from residents in “doughnut holes” – land surrounded by Myrtle Beach city limits but in Horry County’s jurisdiction – in 2012 to pursue a method in state law that allows a vote to be held if 25 percent of the registered voters in that area sign a petition asking to join the city.
The annexation would have extended city limits from U.S. 17 Bypass west to the Intracoastal Waterway, including four lots along the bypass and from Piedmont Industrial Park roughly as far north as Mr. Joe White Avenue in some parts and the Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority and surrounding land owned by Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc.
The city moved forward with a special election for residents in the Waterside and Bridgeport neighborhoods in July and residents voted in favor of joining Myrtle Beach. However, improper placement of the ballot boxes caused the vote to be ruled invalid. When city staff attempted to re-certify the petition’s signatures, they were short the 25 percent and Leath declared that annexation “dead.”
“That was a real disappointment,” he said. “We let that slip away. ... That was my fault. The county set up those polling places, but it was my job to make sure they were where they needed to be. All of those areas really ought to be inside the city of Myrtle Beach. They prosper because of what the city does.”
Becoming city manager
Leath was born in Spartanburg in 1951 and moved to the Charlotte area when he was a few years old, where he grew up and attended school.
“Growing up, my best buddy’s father worked for the city of Charlotte as an engineer in the traffic division, and he ended up being the traffic engineer for Charlotte,” he said. “Looking back, that made some impression on me [about working for a city].”
Leath said he often took family trips to Myrtle Beach growing up and said he always hoped to live here someday.
He attended the University of South Carolina where he received a bachelor’s degree in history, a law degree and a master’s in public administration.
He worked for the state for a few years before practicing law for five years in Bennettsville, where he and Weaver were neighbors – and where Weaver served as the city’s mayor.
“I wanted to hire him as an attorney for Bennettsville, but he didn’t get the job,” Weaver said.
Leath learned that Myrtle Beach was looking for an assistant city attorney and was hired in 1985 and then served as assistant city manager and acting city manager before being hired as city manager in 1987.
“In the back of my mind I thought if I got into the organization, [becoming city manager] would happen eventually,” he said. “I didn’t think it would happen so quickly.”
Planning for the future
Leath’s wife, Stephanie, died suddenly of heart problems in 2000, leaving him to raise his then 13-year-old son Austin alone. Leath found her dead at their home after returning from the beach with their son.
He has said that the city was a source of stability during those times.
“The city has been good to me,” he told The Sun News in 2003. “I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have it.”
Weaver said Leath leaned on his friend and former neighbor Christman during those times.
“After Stephanie, I think he was lost there for a while,” Weaver said. “Cathy really helped. She’s a wonderful person and they genuinely care about each other. ... They’re very suited for each other in temperament. She’s a little more fiery than he is – but that’s not hard to do.”
Leath’s voice changes slightly and his eyes sparkle when he talks about his past – and future – with Christman.
“She’s a great lady,” Leath said. “We have a lot in common. I like to think we’re both unpretentious – we have simple pleasures. And we have our love of the boat.”
The couple spends a lot of time on their Grand Banks wooden boat – and spends a lot of time working on fixing it up together.
“He has a deep passion for boats,” Christman said. “He reads books about boats constantly. ... We hope to be able to travel and take the boat out and complete all the projects on the boat.”
Christman said Leath had talked about retiring for a while, and supports his decision to do it now.
“You’re approaching your 60s or you’re in your 60s and it’s like, ‘wow, we’re getting old,’” she said. “We wanted to be healthy enough to enjoy it.”
Christman, 58, teaches first grade at Forestbrook Elemenatry School – where she has taught for 24 years. She said she hopes to be able to retire sometime soon.
There also might be a wedding in the couple’s future. The city’s nepotism rule kept them from getting married sooner because Christman’s mother used to work for Chapin Memorial Library and now her son is a city firefighter.
“The city’s nepotism rule doesn’t allow relationships in the same department or where one person is overseeing anyone in the immediate family,” he said. “Being city manager, I oversee everyone.”
Christman said she’s excited about the prospect of making things official.
“We’ll probably tie the knot,” she said. “I feel like we’ve been together so long already, but we’re going to do it. ... He’s my best friend and everything else all in one.”
Leath and Christman said they’re excited about their future once Leath is fully retired.
“He has honestly given the best of his years to the city,” Christman said. “It’s going to be a tremendous adjustment for him, but a good one.”
When people ask how involved he’ll be with the city once he’s officially retired at the end of the year, Leath tells them he’s not sure.
“There’s an opening on the Seniors Advisory Committee,” Kruea joked.
Leath said he plans to return for the grand opening of the Myrtle Beach Sports Center but the rest is undecided.
Leath said he’s going to try to avoid having a big farewell on his official last day and hopes to be able to leave without much fanfare, though he said he plans to tour all of the departments to say goodbye to the city employees individually.
“If I stand up [at an event] and tell them all how much I’ve enjoyed working with them, I’d probably end up crying,” he said.
For now, folks will be able to catch glimpses of Leath popping in and out of City Hall – and on the front row of City Council meetings, watching the city he helped build into what it is today.