Atlantic Beach back on track

08/19/2013 4:24 PM

08/19/2013 4:25 PM

Atlantic Beach leaders say they are quickly making progress again, and that the wide majority of residents are behind them as they try to regain ground lost for almost two years during an election dispute.

This is good news. The tiny town surrounded by North Myrtle Beach has struggled for years with a low tax base and poor leadership, despite the dreams of many residents who want the prosperity they see in neighboring beach communities.

Mayor Jake Evans in July finally took the seat he won in the November 2011 elections but was denied while former Mayor Retha Pierce, who received five votes, appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court.

The town is back on track preparing its five years of audits that are overdue to the state Treasurer, has hired a new attorney and brought back former Town Manager William Booker, is cleaning up the four-block town and updating its comprehensive plan.

Moreover, Booker and Evans have reached out to leaders in the other towns and the county, and to state officials and have formed new relationships that will be useful. Sometimes in the past, the town has shut itself off from everyone.

Booker was fired when the former ruling faction took power. During the intervening two years, almost everyone in the Town Hall, including the police, were fired and replaced with those favored by the majority. Little was accomplished, however, beyond the questionable settlement of a lawsuit against the town by one of the council members.

Evans said he feels positive and optimistic, despite the challenges still facing the town.

“You have everybody in Atlantic Beach on the same page,” after several years of chaos, the mayor said in an interview last week.

Atlantic Beach, also known as The Black Pearl, is one of the smallest of the state's 270 cities and towns, with a population of 334. But it is by no means the smallest. Twelve towns have fewer than 100 people, with Smyrna the smallest at 45 residents.

Atlantic Beach is known as The Black Pearl because of its history as a place where blacks could freely come from all over the country to play in the surf, eat and drink in restaurants, and enjoy a vacation denied to them at the time at most segregated, white-run beaches.

Leaders over the years, from whatever faction, have said they want to celebrate and honor that past while seeking to progress into a town with a thriving economy that is attractive to diverse visitors.

Evans said he knows that development won't come while the town has unstable government and finances, and that the council and manager are now working as quickly as they can to right things.

Atlantic Beach has five years of overdue audits, the most of any town in the state. Most of the towns that have not filed the audits, which are required so the public can know how public money is spent, are also very small. Andrews, for example, is overdue for three years.

The town was making progress on the audits when the Town Hall was cleared out two years ago, and the audits were ignored after that. Meanwhile, the state is withholding state funds from the town until the audits are complete.

Booker said the money isn't enough to swamp the town's $600,000 budget, but not having it pinches, and the town could use anything it can get.

Another election looms in November, and Evans said he fully expects that if the incumbents who were formerly in the ruling faction lose, they will again appeal and hold up the rest of the town indefinitely.

Meanwhile, in a move typical of the type of intrigue and questionable activity that often takes place in the town, the municipal election commission declared a council seat vacant, held an election in which no one voted, and declared the only candidate not only the winner but also the mayor pro tem of the town. If the election were valid, that would give the other faction the majority again.

But municipal election commissions run elections; they do not declare vacant slots. Nor can they choose a mayor pro tem. Only the council can do that. Evans says the council did not vote to declare a council seat vacant, or to hold an election, or to choose that person as mayor pro tem. The candidate, John Sketers, received no votes but was declared by the election commission as the winner because there were no other candidates.

One approach to the upcoming election is the appointment of a new election commission, Evans said. He also wants to get them properly trained in how to conduct an election, and hire an attorney familiar with elections to advise them and assist with the process.

Evans and Booker say the Sketers election and the one coming in November are just more bumps in the road to be dealt with, and they are still optimistic that the town will eventually right itself and get to a place where it can govern with no more than the usual policy disagreements that occur regularly in all towns.

Former Horry County Council Chairwoman Liz Gilland is helping town leaders make the contacts and build the relationships they need. She is also optimistic that the town can thrive economically and be successful at governing itself.

“The potential is tremendous,”' she said.

Success can come because there are enough people there who want it, and they are now engaged instead of apathetic, she said.

“I just really admire those who have persevered through the years,” Gilland said. Getting to a good place will take a few years, though. Evans and Booker acknowledge that as well, but both say they are willing to stick it out.

Evans said it encourages him to keep going when townspeople say they also now have hope for better days. The positive attitudes feed on themselves and can't help but move the town toward a better future, as long as the leadership keeps its resolve to stand its ground on the right path.

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