New Richland transportation director has no transportation experience. Is it needed?

The man hired to run Richland County’s transportation department has no prior experience in a transportation-related field.

That has some county leaders scratching their heads. But others say John Thompson’s background in management, accounting, and aging and health services makes him qualified to oversee the county’s billion-dollar road improvement program.

County Councilman Jim Manning called the hire “odd.” Councilman Greg Pearce said, “It’s a head-scratcher.”

But Thompson deserves “a chance to do a great job” and has proven management skills that make him qualified, Councilwoman Dalhi Myers said.

Thompson began his new, $112,000-a-year role Jan. 8. Three months earlier, he was named one of three finalists to head another county agency, the Richland County Recreation Commission. But neither Thompson nor the other two finalists were hired for the recreation job.

At that time, Thompson was described as the chief operating officer of Bible Way Church, which is pastored by state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland. According to a biography provided by the Recreation Commission at the time, Thompson has a background in aging services, health care and strategic planning and management.

He has worked as the head of the Fulton County, Ga., Department of Aging and Youth Services; head of the Washington, D.C., government Office on Aging; director of the National Aging Information and Referral Support Center; and policy adviser for the National Association of States United for Aging and Disabilities; among other positions.

Thompson, who could not be reached for comment for this story, now leads Richland County’s 20-plus-year, billion-dollar program to fund road and greenway construction and bus service, backed by a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax.

“I would wonder why we would hire somebody with no transportation experience to be in charge of a program as large as the transportation penny,” county Councilman Bill Malinowski said. Malinowski said he was not aware of the details of Thompson’s professional background before a reporter told him.

“I think it may help to have management and transportation experience, but I’m not sure,” Councilman Paul Livingston said. By comparison, he said, “You may hire a person with a business background to run a college ... but I’d think they would have a basic understanding of education.”

As to Thompson’s lack of transportation or engineering experience, county spokeswoman Beverly Harris said those skills were not considered necessary for this job, which includes managing and directing the operations of the transportation department, hiring road work professionals, ensuring county policies are followed and ensuring that projects are completed appropriately and on budget.

“While the technical skills of professional engineers are critical to the actual completion of transportation projects, those skills may not translate or be useful when it comes to managing programs of this magnitude – as was the case with the transportation department,” Harris said in an email to The State newspaper. “Therefore, a new director needed to have the necessary managerial and leadership skills to effectively direct the department.”

The transportation penny program faces challenges that include project cost overruns of tens of millions of dollars, county Administrator Gerald Seals has said, as well as ongoing scrutiny from the state Department of Revenue.

Those challenges, Harris said, “resulted from staff’s lack of experience in contract management, organizational development, performance standards and capital projects financing.”

Myers said she trusts Seals’ decision to hire Thompson.

“I believe our administrator has made a great choice, but it’s his choice,” Myers said. Thompson is “not building the roads, he’s managing the program. He has proven skills as a manager.”

The county’s previous transportation director, Rob Perry, resigned in May 2017. He was hired in 2013 as the county’s first transportation director.

Perry came with a background of civil engineering and more than a decade working with the S.C. Department of Transportation. He returned to DOT last year after leaving Richland County.

In Charleston County, which has an ongoing sales tax-funded road improvement program similar in scope to Richland County’s, the director of transportation development previously worked as a civil engineer managing road construction projects.

Transportation experience was a relevant factor in the director’s hiring in 2012, Charleston County spokesman Shawn Smetana said.

Regardless of Thompson’s qualifications, perception is an important issue for Richland County’s transportation program and its future, said Hayes Mizell, the former chairman of the citizens’ Transportation Penny Advisory Committee, a semi-oversight group.

Mizell described “a steady drip, drip of eroding public confidence” in the transportation penny program.

“If you have someone in this responsible position without any background in the field for which they have the responsibility, I think that does not help” perceptions of the program, Mizell said.

“And every time something happens that generates negative views or skepticism among the public about the (county’s) stewardship, about the current transportation referendum ... it’s just another nail in the coffin” for any future voter referendums to support road improvement, Mizell said.