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Georgetown County Council spent at least as much time behind closed doors Tuesday, July 23, as it did in open session.

One of the topics during public comment at the beginning of the meeting was the search for a new administrator to succeed retiring County Administrator Sel Hemingway. He announced his plan to retire at the end of the year, and so far 12 applications for the job have come to the county’s Human Resources Department.

The agenda for the Council meeting included “Contractual – Property” as an executive session item. Chairman John Thomas added a “Personnel Matter” to that executive session. After completing the rest of the agenda about 6:40 p.m., Council members adjourned to an executive session. They returned to the public session at 8:05 p.m., Thomas told the Georgetown Times on Wednesday.

The South Carolina Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) handbook for “Public Official’s Guide to Compliance” with FOIA states: “There are two keys for public bodies preparing to enter an executive session: “votes” and “specific purposes.” To adjourn into executive session, a vote must be taken in public. The only actions that can be taken in executive sessions are to adjourn or return to public session. The law says the presiding officer must state the specific purpose of the executive session. This statement of specific purpose requirement is not satisfied by making a general statement such as “personnel matter” or “contractual matter.” However, the identity of individuals or firms otherwise shielded from release need not be disclosed. Finally, no informal polling about a course of action may be taken in executive session.”

Thomas did not state a “specific purpose” for either of the executive session items.

When asked, Hemingway told the Georgetown Times that the personnel matter would be about the process for hiring an administrator.

On Wednesday, Thomas said that was the personnel matter, and the property issue was how the county should go about selling two properties that were declared surplus on the “Consent Agenda.” One parcel was the former band room on the Howard Adult Center Campus. The other was a former magistrate’s office in the Pleasant Hill area.

NAACP public comment

During the public comment period at the beginning of the Council meeting, Marvin Neal, Georgetown branch president of the NAACP, spoke about the selection process for a new administrator.

“We believe it is highly unprofessional to entrust Walt Ackerman – the now county Human Resources Director – to screen his next supervisor’s application. We have reasons to question his qualifications. As I recall in 2016, Sel Hemingway hired Walt Ackerman. His qualification was, he was born and raised in Andrews. He went to Andrews High School and left only long enough to attend classes at North Carolina State University. No degree at the time was identified. No certification.”

“He was director of financial administration for Williamsburg County, a position that he held for four years prior to joining … Georgetown.”

“Need I remind you,” Neal continued, “that Williamsburg County is now under investigation for financial shortfalls. Not to say he had anything to do with that, but there’s a red flag.”

Neal also said that Hemingway is the same person who supported former District 5 Councilman Austin Beard, who resigned after a contentious period of several months over issues surrounding Beard’s residency.

“This is only a repeat of the ‘good old boy’ system,” Neal said.

He added that County Council is in a position to make a change that he said needs to be made immediately.

He asserted “There are qualified employees that submitted for a position for Human Resources manager with Master’s degrees in Human Resources Management that did not get an interview. Neither did they get a courtesy letter that said the applications were accepted or thank them for submitting the applications.”

Neal said he thought all applications for administrator should be reviewed and investigated by Council’s justice committee, to ensure fair consideration.

“The credibility of Georgetown County government is in question when it comes to fairness of employment of personnel and treatment of minorities.”

“We are very disappointed in your ability to govern our county government when it comes down to holding persons of supervisory positions accountable. We have continued budget shortfalls. We have continuous discrimination practices. Complaints that’s unresolved,” he said.

“There is no trust in county government and the persons in charge. We cannot stress enough – transparency, diversity and accountability. Justice and liberty for all.”

“Any questions?”

Chairman Thomas said, “Mr. Neal, if you have specific, substantiated claims – if you would pass them directly to me, I would appreciate it.”

“I think it’s available to you within your system of government,” Neal said. “Walt Ackerman, he could give it you. I can contact Human Affairs and they can forward it to you.’

“Completely outrageous”

Contacted Wednesday, Thomas said “It was completely outrageous, what he (Marvin Neal) said.”

“It is outrageous that he stands there and impugns the credibility and integrity of a county employee without a shred of evidence.”

Thomas said he had a public statement about the administrator position posted on the county’s Web site and Facebook pages, and that several local news outlets picked up the statement. It says, in part:

“All applications must be sent to the county’s Human Resources office, where they will be delivered to the Human Resources Director for review. The director will eliminate any applicants who do not meet the qualifications standards. All remaining applications will be sent to County Council members for review. Human Resources Director Walt Ackerman says he hopes to have applications to Council members by mid-August. Applications that were removed due to lack of qualifications will also be available to Council upon request. Once Council is in receipt of all qualified applications, they will determine the process for reducing the number of applicants for interviews and public presentation.”

By making the full statement, Thomas said, “I wanted to demonstrate to the public that we have a transparent process.”

“They apparently missed the part that all members of County Council will have access to all applications.”

“For Marvin (Neal) to say such outrageous allegations is uncalled for,” Thomas said.

About Ackerman, Thomas said “I have no doubt he is a person of great integrity and capability. I have great concern about the words that were said about him in public. It’s very unfortunate.”

“As we talk about the qualifications we are looking for in an administrator, you can say an applicant with 15 years’ experience is more valuable than a piece of paper,” Thomas said. He was referring to a qualification for a Master’s degree.

“I think Walt (Ackerman) has a wealth of experience in the field he is in.”

Overall, Thomas added, “I’m very sensitive to doing everything I can to convey to the public that the process we ae going though is a quality process that everyone can have confidence in.”

Ackerman’s background

While Council members were in executive session, Ackerman talked with the Georgetown Times about his job, his qualifications and his experience.

One of the key points, he said, is that he “is not the Human Resources director. He is Director of Administration. Human Resources is one part of that.”

He also provides oversight for Risk Management, Veterans Affairs, the Assessor and the Register of Deeds and Information Technology.

Ackerman is a graduate of Andrews High School. “I went to N.C. State for a couple of years. I did not finish my degree,” Ackerman said. “My intention was to go back.” He went to the former Insteel plant in Andrews to work, and during that time his wife found out she was pregnant.

He went back to school and got a two-year degree in accounting. He’s also taken other courses related to the various jobs he’s held.

“I’ve got 190 hours of college education, but no degree,” Ackerman said. North Carolina State University requires 120 credit hours for a bachelor’s degree.

Ackerman is a Certified Government Financial Officer. He took a year-long course that was “quite intense” to earn a Certificate in Human Relations and Practices.

“Every job we post (for the county) has education or equivalent” as a requirement. “I’ve got 25 years’ experience,” he said.

“I’m an expert in human resources and financial software that the county has. That saves the county a lot of money. We don’t have to hire another person. I know the software,” Ackerman said.

He also noted that to qualify for the CPA exam a person has to have 24 hours of college credit. “I’ve got 40 hours,” Ackerman said.

As a CGFO, he has to take 24 hours of continuing education classes each year.

Fairness of employment

In his remarks during public comment, Neal claimed there are problems with unfair practices.

Ackerman provided the Georgetown Times with a spreadsheet titled “Statistical Analysis of Employment Termination” for the year ending May 31, 2019.

He said the county’s black population is about 31.5 percent, while about 35 percent of the county’s employees are black.

During those 12 months, there were a total of 92 terminations. OF those, 27 were African American. That works out to 29.35 percent. Other totaled 65 people, or 70.65 percent.

Of the 27 African American terminations, seven retired, one resigned due to retirement earnings limit, 13 resigned for other reasons, and six were terminated for cause. Of those six, one was for a corrections officer having sex with an inmate. Another was stealing, wrongfully using a county credit card.

“I talk to people when they leave. I genuinely care about our employees. But, nobody asked those questions,” Ackerman said.

More information

The announced target date for applications for administrator is mid-August. Both Ackerman and Thomas said that they expect County Council will go through the applications at that time, select applicants to interview and make a determination in the Fall.

Ackerman noted that since not only is Hemingway retiring as administrator, but Finance Director Scott Proctor will retire before the end of the year. Hemingway suggested that a new administrator should hire a new finance director.

The announcement of the search for a new county administrator is on the Georgetown County Web site: http://www.georgetowncountysc.org/

There’s also a link to the jobs listing for all county jobs, including the administrator position: http://www.georgetowncountysc.org/Human_Resources/employment.html

An organization chart for Georgetown County government is available at this link: http://www.georgetowncountysc.org/about/docs/OrganizationalChart.pdf