Columbia’s new parks and recreation director was the top choice of a selection committee that included neighborhood leaders.
Despite Jeff Caton’s public clash last year with Spartanburg County Council that fired him in the wake of the derailment of a children’s train ride at a county park, the panel that interviewed eight finalists for the Columbia job recommended Caton, city manager Steve Gantt and a panel member said Monday.
Caton was hired by Gantt to the $99,000-a-year post last week, installing a full-time director to oversee Columbia’s 54 parks for the first time in nearly eight years. Allison Baker, now an assistant city manager, said he was the last to hold the full-time job, though the department had an interim director for most of last year.
Caton said during his public grievance hearing in August that his clash with Spartanburg Councilman David Britt was ignited by an incident at a hospital where some of the 29 children injured in the derailment were treated. A 6-year-old died after the wreck.
Gantt and selection committee member John Stucker said the panel was aware of the derailment and Caton’s dismissal in June as Spartanburg’s parks director. Gantt and Stucker said they concluded after candidate interviews that the firing was politically motivated.
“There were some people in Spartanburg County government who wanted to go in a different direction,” said Stucker, a retired USC professor and University Hill neighborhood activist. Gantt said Tea Party candidates won the county council election and drove out Caton as well as that county’s administrator.
Caton bore no responsibility for the derailment, Stucker said.
The selection panel, comprised of four city staffers and two neighborhood representatives, rated the finalists and Caton ranked highest.
“He was head and shoulders above No. 2,” Gantt said of the next-best rated contender.