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Here is how much Horry County administrator’s departure cost taxpayers

Horry County Council votes on Eldridge’s employment

Horry County Council met once again to decide the future of its top employee, Administrator Chris Eldridge. Here is how the latest vote went following the SLED investigation into Chairman Johnny Gardner.
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Horry County Council met once again to decide the future of its top employee, Administrator Chris Eldridge. Here is how the latest vote went following the SLED investigation into Chairman Johnny Gardner.

Horry County will likely pay well over $305,000 over the course of the next 12 months for the termination of Administrator Chris Eldridge.

Not all of the money will be paid directly to Eldridge as a portion of it includes payments into the retirement plan and health insurance costs.

Over the next year, the former administrator will receive payment for a year’s worth of salary, his $9,600 car allowance, the monetary worth of hundreds of hours of banked vacation time as well as vacation time he’ll continue to accrue this next year.

Indirectly, he will get all county health and well-being benefits, payments into the retirement plan and his legal fees covered for the negotiation of the contract.

Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner and Eldridge’s personal attorney negotiated the terms. The two signed the agreement April 16.

The payments of his termination will not come all at once. By May 1, over $27,000 will be paid into the state retirement system on Eldridge’s behalf and his attorney Amy Gaffney’s legal fees will be paid.

The rest of the money must be paid within the next year with a deadline of April 17, 2020. This includes any benefit plans he was involved in, a year’s worth of his $217,599 salary and a payout for any of the vacation time he would have incurred in the next year.

Much of the agreement was based of values laid out in the terms of his employment. His original employment contract would have required six months of pay and benefits if he was fired, but a previous vote to fire Eldridge failed.

Council Member Tyler Servant was the only council member to vote against Eldridge’s updated employment terms in 2015.

While Eldridge will still be on the payroll, he will not be allowed to perform duties in any function. He turned over any county property in his possession on Wednesday.

In addition, the resignation contract included an agreement that Eldridge would not sue the county over the termination of his employment.

The contract also included a clause which says neither Eldridge nor the County can disparage each other. It also says Eldridge cannot contact Council members or staff to discuss negative business.

The contract for the resignation and the costs are now public but remained secret for nearly 48 hours after the approved vote.

County Council voted at its Tuesday meeting to accept terms for Eldridge’s departure. The discussion took place behind closed doors in executive session. While the vote was public, the terms initially included non-disclosure agreement language.

In the contract itself, the document said no member of council or the administrator could disclose the contents of the agreement.

The contract included a statement directing county officials to respond to inquiries concerning the administrator by saying: “Chris Eldridge will no longer serve as Horry County Administrator. The County appreciates his many years of service to the citizens of Horry County.”

It took four months to get to this point after Eldridge requested a S.C. Law Enforcement Division investigation into an alleged extortion attempt during a lunch attended by Gardner, his associate, Luke Barefoot, and members of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation.

Council members initially declined to comment Tuesday on how much Eldridge’s departure would cost Horry County taxpayers. It seemed the contract would not be given over to the public.

Once the contract was released to the public, Council Member Johnny Vaught said the costs eliminated the risk of Eldridge suing over his termination without a contract.

“If we lost (a lawsuit), it could have cost upwards of a million dollars,” Vaught said. “It takes away a lot of the risks.”

Given the circumstances, the contract helped eliminate the risks of lawsuit from Eldridge, Council Member Dennis DiSabato said.

It was clear the the county wasn’t able to move forward with the administrator still employed given the attitudes by half of council, DiSabato said.

“It was apparent we as a council were deadlocked on a lot of issues,” he said.

Gardner could not be reached for comment.

The Sun News filed a Freedom of Information Act request immediately after the meeting for the contract. It was denied the next day.

FOIA lawyer Jay Bender said keeping the document private would have been a violation of the law.

“If the county thinks it can avoid the state law, they need better legal advice,” Bender said Wednesday.

After a couple days, Horry County mysteriously changed its mind Thursday, and The Sun News FOIA request was fulfilled at 4 p.m. Thursday.

When asked why, Horry County Spokesperson Kelly Moore said the county would provide no further information. Vaught said due to the FOIA requests, Horry County reached out to Eldridge to see if could be released to the public.

Moving forward, Assistant Administrator Steve Gosnell will be the acting administrator until a new one is chosen. Vaught said he expects the new administrator to be picked through a nation-wide search conducted by an outside search firm.

If a new administrator is picked within the next year, the County will pay both Eldridge’s termination contract and the new administrator’s contract.