Camden County Administrator Steve Howard, who also serves as the project leader for Spaceport Camden, was among three finalists who interviewed with the Seminole (Florida) County Commission Friday for the county administrator position.
After the public interviews, which were streamed live online, the five-member commission rejected all three candidates and voted to start its search again with a new search firm.
Howard became Camden Administrator 15 years ago and added the role of Spaceport Camden project leader in 2014. He’s been a staunch advocate of the controversial project, which aims to launch small commercial rockets from a former industrial site over Cumberland Island National Seashore.
But he’s also been job hunting as opposition to the spaceport has put the project in limbo.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued Camden a launch site operator’s license in December but in a March referendum voters turned out in a nearly three to one margin against the spaceport. The referendum is now the subject of a lawsuit, with the Georgia Supreme Court expected to rule on its legitimacy this summer. Meanwhile, conservation groups have sued the FAA over the issuance of the license, say the agency did not properly evaluate the project’s harmful impacts on public health, private property, and the environment.
Howard did not include any information about the spaceport in his resume or cover letter to Seminole County, a public records response indicates. But asked by a commissioner Friday about his experience with the private sector in his current role, Howard pointed to Spaceport Camden.
“I recognize you’re not going to do a spaceport in Seminole, but I’ve had the luxury of working with SpaceX, Blue Origin, Bill Gates, some companies associated with Bill Gates as well. So all that’s private sector driven,” he said.
The county has not made public any agreements with any commercial rocket companies. Camden has spent $11 million on the spaceport project but has not yet purchased the land for the facility or built any infrastructure. Camden’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year does not earmark any money for spaceport.
During the Seminole County Commission meeting’s public comment period, resident Nancy Harmon said she had lived in Camden County and worked at King’s Bay Naval Base. She praised Howard’s work on spaceport as “great” for diversifying the economy but said the environment in the county “sucks.” She had issues with how Howard’ could play two roles at once.
“He’s an industry man. He’s worked very hard with industry to get what he wants,” she said. “And he was the executive (for) spaceport the whole time pretty much that he was their administrator. I have an issue with that. I think that’s a conflict of interest. I don’t think that was very professional.”
Shortly after interviewing Howard and the two other finalists the Seminole Commission voted unanimously to reject the candidates and start the search process anew. The commission agreed none of the men was a good fit for their needs.
Howard is still one of six finalists for a county manager position in Collier County, Fla. That county commission expects to hear presentations from the finalists at its meeting on June 14.
In late April, Howard said told The Current he was honored to be a finalist for the position. “Me and my wife have family in the region,” he said. “Collier County, Florida has a population of over 384,000 and the current manager’s salary is $230,000.”