When College of Charleston alumna Jennifer J. Miller ’84 took on the role of deputy county administrator of human services for Charleston County in 2007, she wondered where her career would go from there. After all, there had never been a female county administrator for Charleston County.
“Even though I was deputy administrator, somewhere, deep down, I honestly didn’t believe I was going to get a shot at county administrator,” says Miller. “It literally came out of nowhere.”
Miller made history in June 2017 when Charleston County Council named her as the first female county administrator in Charleston’s history, following the retirement of County Administrator Keith Bustraan. One year later, Miller says her first 12 months at the helm of South Carolina’s third most populous county has had its challenges – from continued questions surrounding funding for the expansion of Interstate 526 to weather events such as Hurricane Irma last fall and freezing temperatures and snow in January to the ever-present infrastructure demands as the region continues to grow.
“Charleston County government is not an island unto itself,” says Miller. “There are 17 municipalities within Charleston County which have their own government entities, and if you don’t recognize you need to communicate and work together, you never will be effective.”
As a business administration major at the College in the early 1980s, Miller stumbled into the field of public service and local government when she took a public administration course. It was a seminal moment.
“The hardest thing we can do is figuring out what is our passion, what is it that we’re drawn to,” says Miller. “When I took a public administration course something clicked, and it clicked so well the particular professor said ‘you need to take some more [public administration courses].’ And because of that I was introduced to an avenue I had never thought about – working for local government.”
Miller graduated in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. She had fulfilled all the requirements for a double major in public administration, but at the time CofC did not allow for multiple majors. Still intrigued with the complexities of local government, Miller enrolled in a master’s program in public administration through a consortium between the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina. (Today the College offers it’s own Master of Public Administration program.)
In 1985 she took an internship with Charleston County’s human resources department to help complete a compensation study initially started through a partnership with the College.
“I interviewed 600 county employees and really learned a lot and got introduced to all aspects of county government,” says Miller, adding, “I saw something there that interested me.”
Then in 1986, Miller was hired full-time with Charleston County as a compensation analyst. She spent the next 30 years climbing the ranks and working in just about every facet of local government from ancillary recovery duties in emergency management to safety to planning and zoning to human resources. When Hurricane Hugo struck the Holy City in 1989, Miller played a role as the coordinator of the Raise the Roof Recovery Program.
Without question, Miller says managing a rapidly growing county with a diverse set of needs is challenging. In her mind, the goal for local government should be to improve what’s not working – be it infrastructure or public safety – and preserve the things that make Charleston special and unique.
“Some people just see government as a regulatory agency, but we have a large public safety component with EMS and the sheriff’s office,” says Miller. “When you talk about land use and development you’re trying to preserve why everyone’s coming here right now.”
As she embarks on her second year as county administrator, Miller says she hopes the constant discord about government on social media and in the news doesn’t discourage future generations from a career in local government.
“If public service is your passion, which it’s mine, this is a place where you can make a difference,” she says. “There’s always going to be a naysayer, there’s always going to be trouble. What we see first is the worst, never the best. But there are so many good things you can do, people you can help and changes you can make.”
There’s just one thing to consider: “Do you care enough to make a difference and do you have what it takes to be a part of it?” asks Miller.
Featured image: Charleston County Administrator Jennifer J. Miller attends a Charleston County Council meeting.