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Horry County Council hoping to avoid a stalemate

The Horry County Council will interview the second set of finalists for a permanent county administrator Monday with hopes that, despite similar circumstances, the stalemate that ended the first round of the search last November will not be repeated.

In the first round, the council ended up deadlocked in a six-to-six tie vote between two finalists, one former county administrator from Florida and current interim county administrator John Weaver. A third candidate had dropped out before the council took its final vote.

This second round of interviews begins the same way, with two finalists - Dale Surrett, a former county administrator from Oconee County, and for the second time, Weaver. A third finalist, Al Greene, a county administrator from North Carolina, dropped out of the running shortly after the finalists were announced.

Council members said this week that they are walking into the interviews with an open mind, hoping not to have another deadlocked vote. Several members said they have a candidate they are supporting before the interviews, but most said they are open to negotiating partially because both budget season and the filing period for the 2010 election cycle are set to begin shortly. Filing for six council district seats and the chairman's at-large seat begins Tuesday, and the council will have its spring budget retreat on April 8.

"Every time I do this, I go on with an open mind. I don't know what we could ask [Weaver] that we haven't asked him already. As for the other gentleman, we need to get an idea of his philosophy on staff and budgeting ... to get a sense of how he would administer the county," said Councilman Gary Loftus. "I think they would be open-minded from both sides of the [stalemate]. The hope is that there is enough desire to move this forward that people will use a reasonable and rational approach."

The council wrote into the ordinance directing the second search that it would wait at least 10 days after the interviews before voting, so the first regularly scheduled council meeting when the decision could be made would be April 6 unless a majority of the council agrees to vote at the council's Tuesday meeting. An agenda sent Friday for Tuesday's meeting did not include a vote on the administrator. Most council members reached for comment Friday said they planned to follow the ordinance.

Weaver said during his first interview as a finalist that he would like to create an assistant administrator position. Several council members said that move may ease some concerns for several council members because if Weaver were chosen, one or more of the administrative staff would be gaining experience to run the county as an interim or permanent replacement when he left.

"Regardless of the internal politics that has taken place over the job of the administrator, there has never been any public or private discussion about our senior staff that has not been exceptional. The three are looked at as very professional and very competent. There has been some discussion about perhaps elevating one or more of those positions from division director to assistant administrators. And I would support that," Weaver said.

"I do not envision any major changes that I have independently decided upon; it is my job to implement the long-term and far-reaching policy that County Council deems appropriate. If they have changes they are interested in, then it is my job to look at the pros and cons and implement it. I have no large plans or hidden agenda to reinvent the wheel," he said.

Weaver, 62, said at his previous interview and confirmed Friday that he would still seek a three-year contract if chosen and an increase in salary that would match his current pay as interim administrator - his base pay as county attorney and about $3,200 extra per month, or about $168,000. Weaver has served as the county attorney for about 10 years and has been interim administrator since May of last year. Former administrator Danny Knight left for an executive director position at the Horry County Solid Waste Authority. His salary at that time was $145,000, which is lower than most comparably sized counties in the state.

"I don't really know the other guy, and I do know Weaver," said Councilman Harold Worley. "He's pretty tried and proven and we know he can do the job. With the big things going on, including the airport terminal project and the budget we have to work with, I believe he is the best choice for us right now in Horry County. Someone new, they come in with a learning curve ... and that is expensive and I don't think we can afford that right now."

The second candidate, Surrett, 47, said this week that he was not treating the interviews Monday as a competition, but as an opportunity to show the council his strengths and philosophies.

"The council, in this situation, has to ask tough questions and figure out what the philosophy of each candidate is and decide which one fits best with what they want to accomplish. I'm going to share with them what I believe and my experience and leave them to make the decision that's best for their county," he said. "If you look at my background, I'm an administrator. Unless it's illegal, I'm going to do what the council asks me to do and bring them as much information as I can about the decision. I'm not the type of administrator who's there to bump heads with the council. My job would be to help them implement their vision."

Surrett, who has been employed in county or city government since he was 18, has held several administrator positions including town manager of Monck's Corner and county administrator for McCormick County.

He was fired from his job in Oconee County in May, and during his negotiations with that County Council over a severance package, the reason for his dismissal was changed to reflect a difference in direction taken by a newly elected majority on council. The original letter of dismissal lists specific reasons for the dismissal including a failure to handle issues with code enforcement and cost-effective budgeting that led to a "marked and apparently irreconcilable philosophical and actual difference in leadership styles and expectations between you and members of the Oconee County Council."

Surrett said the three new members who were elected a few months before he was fired wanted to move in a different direction and noted that the letter was not signed by the two council members who remained from the council that hired him.

Councilman Marion Foxworth said he was not sure if another stalemate would happen after this round of interviews.

"As of a week, week and a half ago, people were frustrated and weren't sure where we were going at this point. I had not personally heard of anyone on either side of the last stalemate indicating they had intent to have a change of heart," he said. "If it were to happen again, my choice would be to go back out and reopen the search. I think perhaps we've mined the 25 resumes [we've been looking at] for all the nuggets we can find."