Coast RTA board of directors fires Myers Rollins

Myers Rollins Jr. was fired Wednesday morning as Coast RTA’s CEO after nearly nine years of service, and some board members pointed to a failed bus shelter program as one of the reasons for the ousting.

“Our mission is the same and our goals are the same,” said Bernard Silverman, chairman of the Coast RTA board. “I think it was time for new leadership.”

The firing comes amid a committee’s examination of a failed bus shelter program that could cost the transit more than $324,000. The committee was formed by Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The Coast board voted 6-2 to terminate the terms of Rollins’ contract, with board members Ivory Wilson and Lillie Jean Johnson voting against the termination.

The letter Rollins received from Silverman, which was read publicly at the board’s meeting, stated Rollins will receive paychecks through June 29 and a severance package that equals four months of his $134,500 annual salary, plus payment of up to 60 days of any unused vacation or sick days.

“We respectfully request that you immediately collect your personal belongings and then vacate the premises,” the letter states. “We further request that you do not enter any Coast RTA facility unless permission is granted by the chairman of the board.”

This is the second chief executive fired from the transit in 10 years. Former chief Benedict Shogaolu pleaded guilty to three felony public-corruptions charges in 2006. He was fired from Coast in 2004 after an investigation by the agency’s board showed he misspent public money, mistreated employees and possibly violated state and federal laws.

Julie Norton-Dew, the transit’s chief financial officer, was named interim CEO at the end of Wednesday’s four-hour meeting. Silverman said the board must first learn about creating a search committee, form the committee and begin to look for a permanent replacement for Rollins.

Silverman said he didn’t think Rollins knew the firing was coming Wednesday. A Conway police officer and an Horry County sheriff’s deputy were sitting outside the bus service’s headquarters.

“They weren’t needed,” Silverman said. “It was a prevention, just in case there was anger or accusations.”

Instead, Silverman said, “Myers was a gentleman. We thanked each other.”

Asked about his nine years at the helm of the transit, Rollins told The Sun News as he was taking items from his desk to his car: “I’ll get with you later.” Rollins could not be reached for further comment late Wednesday afternoon.

As Rollins returned to the Coast building just minutes after his firing, his employee-access badge did not work at the door and he needed to use the public entrance at the front of the building.

Rollins was hired in 2005 by the Waccamaw Regional Transportation Authority, which did business back then as Lymo and now does business as Coast RTA. Rollins was a consultant with ATC, a management company that was contracted to help clear a messy $4.1 million debt the transit found itself in from 2001-2005. The $4.1 million in misspent public money was detailed in an audit by the state Department of Transportation. In 2005, Rollins reportedly cut a projected shortfall from $750,000 to $200,000, according to published reports. He aimed to balance the 2006 budget, despite a projected $400,000 deficit.

Rollins was proud that he brought the transit to profitable years, which is on track to do the same this year. He was known to work deals with larger transits around the state to obtain quality used buses for the Coast RTA at prices as low as $1,500 per bus. He added trolleys to the area, which he said have become very popular among tourists. Rollins introduced the bus routes in and out of Myrtle Beach International Airport and was working to make the routes more efficient this coming season.

His mantra was the Coast’s need for dedicated funding. He led Coast and its believers to persuade voters to approve a 0.6 of a mill advisory referendum in 2010. About 62 percent of voters approved of the move and Horry County councilmen listened, dedicating that money, or more than $1 million, to Coast annually.

In 2012, Rollins faced a ruling from the S.C. Ethics Commission finding him in violation for not filing annual economic interest reports for the previous three years. He was ordered to pay $9,500 in fees. The board, led by then Chairman Ivory Wilson, who voted Wednesday against firing Rollins, fully supported Rollins during the ethics commission investigation.

An investigation by The Sun News indicated via company emails from Coast RTA that former Chief Financial Officer Patricia Webster and Joey McKelvey, former director of operations, worked to have Rollins fired by neglecting to perform assigned duties that ultimately led to fines for the Coast RTA CEO and general manager. Emails sent from 2009 to 2011 between Webster and McKelvey – who were terminated from their positions in February 2011 – show the two worked together in an attempt to either force Rollins to resign or have him fired.

Then came the summer of 2013 when some county councilmen, such as Gary Loftus, felt the county’s representation on Coast’s board was insufficient. So, the county withheld about a quarter of a million dollars until Coast made a stronger effort to work with state legislators to change the law that governs the makeup of Coast’s board. Later that summer, the county paid Coast after better efforts were made.

Loftus, who is also on the Coast RTA board, said he didn’t feel critical of the job Rollins was doing.

“I wasn’t so much critical as I was questioning or wondering about several of the things that have been done,” Loftus said. “Like the bus shelter program. It was at zero for 21/2 years, nothing happened, and we built [S.C.] 31 in three years.”

Loftus was referring to the planned $1 million bus shelter program that was awarded to Coast in 2005. The S.C. Department of Transportation finally canceled the program in 2013 because of lack of progress.

Silverman agreed that the shelter program played a role.

“I think the shelter program was the straw,” Silverman said. “There are a lot of numbers in the shelter program. There are people, out on the streets, standing on the corner with no shelter from the sun, no shelter from the rain. They’re standing on the corner, just a few feet from [U.S.] 501 or [U.S.] 701, with nowhere to sit and nowhere to get out of the sun. [The shelters] need to be in the ground. Myers was the project planner. He had all kinds of problems, a million problems with zoning and underground wires, and I don’t completely fault him for it.”

Mickey James, a Coast RTA board member and longtime proponent of Rollins, said he, too, did not like the way the shelter program was run.

“I’m very disappointed in the shelters,” James said. “I think they were very flawed and I disapprove of that.”

James, who is also president of the Myrtle Beach chapter of the NAACP, has sat in on several Coast board meetings where Rollins’ race – he is African-American – was at the center of debates as to why his leadership was being criticized by board members who are white. As one of two African-Americans who led government-funded departments in the area with Horry County Police Chief Saundra Rhodes as the other, James said the focus is more on getting Coast back on its feet and not so much the race of the leader.

“The main thing right now is to get Coast back to where it needs to be,” James said. “It doesn’t matter who is in charge. To me, race doesn’t really matter. It’s a matter of funding that we need to get.”

The firing comes just days after Rollins toured Horry County, the city of Myrtle Beach and Georgetown County in his annual “Ride with the GM” tour, which is aimed at allowing riders and representatives of those governments an opportunity to ride with Rollins on a Coast RTA bus and ask questions.

No one from Horry County, the transit’s largest local contributor, went on the tour.

When asked about the timing of Rollins’ firing after the tours, Silverman said it simply came down to finding enough support to fire him from Coast board members.

“The reason was because I was waiting for support,” Silverman said.

Rollins’ contract was set to expire at the end of this summer, but Silverman said that would have kept Rollins on the job for too long.

“Earlier there was support for not renewing the contract, but the contract has a clause that would have renewed it automatically for one year,” Silverman said. “It was a crazy contract. I signed that contract. I signed a bad contract. Others did too. If it wasn’t for that, we probably would have had a very simple good-bye party.”

The Sun News asked a Coast RTA official for a copy of Rollins’ contract, but was told to file a Freedom of Information Act request.

Silverman said the more than $1 million Horry County gives to the transit in quarterly payments, he felt, was at risk of being cut if Rollins stuck around.

“I think this gives us a possibility of getting the entire sum,” Silverman said. “I think before there was little or no possibility that we would get the full amount of money without some erroneous attachment.”

Silverman said there was no deal struck with councilmen who wanted Rollins out of office.

“There’s been no deal made,” Silverman said. “Nobody has promised anything to anybody. I am hoping that they feel we have taken it in a direction, which is my goal, and that they will continue to fund us. We need that money.”

Loftus said the firing was more than just about local funding.

“The million dollars from the county was not an issue,” Loftus said. “What I think the board felt was that he had lost his effectiveness with various government agencies that fund us. We’re trying to work out terms on the bus shelter program and the state was being a little rough on us.

“There were some people in the county who questioned why should we give a million dollars to an outfit that operates like this? It was just a loss of confidence, and it happens. He’s been here 10 years. I mean, they fire baseball managers on a weekly basis. It’s really not that much difference.”

Silverman said the transit’s main objective of transporting Horry County’s residents and visitors will move forward.

“I think we’re just going to have to carry on,” Silverman said. “There are a lot of things we’re going to have to do with a new general manager. Obviously the staff is buzzing right now, but the buses are going to roll tomorrow, just like they rolled this morning. They’re going to roll every day, and that’s our main goal.”