Editorial | Atlantic Beach Can Be Saved If We’re Willing

December 15, 2012 

The question isn’t what to say about the continued turmoil up in Atlantic Beach. It’s an unmitigated, chaotic mess. The question is where to start and what to do about it.

The town has suffered from disorganized elections, leadership and finances for years. But to sum up all of the problems would take much more space than we have available. Instead, a quick (as if that’s possible) rundown of just the more recent developments is in order:

Perhaps most concerning for the little town is the settlement of two long-running lawsuits pressed for years by Mayor Pro Tem Carolyn Cole. Then-Town Manager Calvin Blanton, appointed earlier this year by Cole and her allies on Town Council, approved the settlements in late October, creating a large payday for Cole. The town is now obligated to pay out more than $7,700 a month for the next four years, or a little more than $93,000 a year. The town’s annual budget is only around $600,000 these days, making this settlement a significant chunk of money.

That’s hardly the only problem afflicting the town, however.

After approving the settlement Blanton has apparently gone AWOL and can’t be reached. He was suspended Wednesday, the third manager to be removed in the last year and a half, after other council members complained that they have little idea what’s actually going on in the town.

“They say we don’t have any money,” Councilwoman Charlene Taylor told reporter Amanda Kelley. “We’re going to find out who’s got money, whether we have any or not. I guess we do, but we want to know.”

“It’s kind of disturbing for business owners, residents and others to ask you basic questions about your police force and you have to answer ‘I don’t know,’ ” said Councilman Jake Evans. “It’s not a good thing.”

The town lost its last police officer a few weeks ago after it stopped paying him. And until an administrative assistant was appointed at Wednesday’s meeting, Darnell Price (husband of Councilwoman Windy Price) was the only worker left on the town payroll.

Darnell Price, who’s working as the town’s code official, also happens to be in the process of suing the town about, among other things, purported code violations at his wife’s church. It’s only the latest in a string of suits by the Prices against the town and its officials.

Mayor Retha Pierce also has been spending her time filing lawsuits. One, against various town and state officials alleging she was falsely indicted for hit-and-run in 2009, was just dismissed last week because she failed to meet deadlines set by the court. Another, filed in November against Brunswick County Hospital after a stay in 2009, is a particularly strange rambling, even by Atlantic Beach standards, describing visions, voices, a diagnosis of mental illness and a forced trip to a Brunswick County mental treatment facility.

Setting aside the fact that filing a lawsuit complaining about the public humiliation of being deemed mentally incapacitated will only make the fact more public, the events described in the lawsuit itself raise serious questions about Pierce’s fitness for office, if there were still any doubts.

Meanwhile, town gadfly Paul Curry was arrested on harassment charges stemming from his video recording of Darnell Price. And Windy Price has filed yet another appeal of the town’s special election held in May, an election forced by the governor after the November 2011 election was nullified.

Phew! Exhausted yet?

The town’s in trouble. That should go without saying. The question now before its citizens (at least those not busy suing the town) is what to do about it.

Many Grand Strand residents, tired of watching this dysfunctional parade, have called for the town to simply be dissolved. But it’s not that simple. State law has strict rules about what it takes for a town to lose its incorporation. Atlantic Beach can only be dissolved if its population drops below 50 residents, if the town’s residents vote to unincorporate or if the town fails to provide municipal services and doesn’t hold elections for four years. Barring those conditions, there’s nothing the state or county can now do to dissolve the town.

In the meantime, a number of other remedies are needed or possible. The first and most important is to settle the question of who the town’s elected leaders are. Unfortunately, this seems to once again be up to the courts, which aren’t necessarily known for their speed.

After leadership is settled, legislative remedies may also be in order. One of the best solutions proposed in recent years came from state Rep. Tracy Edge, whose district covers Atlantic Beach. His Municipal Finance Oversight Act passed the House in 2010 but then floundered in the state Senate, despite the important backing of the Municipal Association of S.C. Previous attempts met the same fate in the Senate.

Edge did not reintroduce the bill in the last session but now begins a new two-year session and a new chance to pass his proposal, which promised a clear path to cleaning up struggling towns like Atlantic Beach and setting them on a more stable footing. The idea is still a good one, to create basic requirements for local towns and cities, common-sense standards such as keeping up with their audits and their debt payments. Towns that got into trouble would be given a roadmap back to solvency, and town governments that ignored that roadmap would be temporarily suspended while an outside expert cleaned up the books.

Other laws have also been proposed, such as Jim Harrison’s 2005 attempt – cosponsored by Myrtle Beach’s Alan Clemmons – to change election rules so that incumbents could not stay in power merely by repeatedly contesting the election that ousted them. That bill also failed in the Senate. Though we’re not aware of one, a bill addressing the ethics of suing a town while simultaneously serving as a leader in that town would also not be out of order.

Though its plight seems dire now, the town can still be saved. At this point, however, it will likely need outside help. Legislators and other local leaders can provide that if they’re willing. If they’re not, it’s hard to be optimistic about the town’s future.

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