What was scheduled as an executive session to discuss the employment of the Horry County administrator quickly erupted into a shouting match among council members and the county attorney that didn’t answer any questions or render a conclusion.
The executive session never happened Friday afternoon.
New Council Chair Johnny Gardner called the meeting on Thursday. The agenda stated the purpose was for “discussion of employment, appointment, compensation, promotion, demotion, discipline, or release of an employee.”
The ultimate vote to go into executive session failed 10-2, with council members Al Allen and Gardner voting to go into session. Once it failed, the meeting was adjourned, leaving many in the audience shocked.
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The session was called after a Dec. 20 story posted on FITSNews, a political blog run out of Columbia, about a memo written by County Attorney Arrigo Carotti outlining what he knew concerning an alleged extortion attempt involving Gardner. According to the memo, Gardner and his associate Luke Barefoot possibly tried to extort the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation, president Sandy Davis and director of investor relations Sherri Steele.
County Administrator Chris Eldridge requested the S.C. Law Enforcement Division investigate the possibility a crime occurred.
In a news release, Gardner denied any wrongdoing. At the time of the memo being published, Eldridge and Carotti declined to comment.
The key issues of Friday’s meeting was how to best handle discussion of the fiasco. Several council members were concerned about the executive session, instead wanting to discuss the issues in public.
At the beginning of the meeting, council member Johnny Vaught made a motion to go into executive session for a different reason, citing potential litigation.
“The only notification council has had on these events was an email and a memorandum,” Vaught said. “That’s the only reason, for information.”
Council member Dennis DiSabato said he “didn’t see what we’re going to talk about there what we can’t discuss out in the public.” If they were going to take actions on Eldridge, then it could need an executive session, but this meeting was trying to figure out what was going on, he said. He believed that should be done publicly.
“These people have a right to know what’s going on,” DiSabato said.
Council member Al Allen said the county has been embarrassed.
“Let’s just open up Pandora’s box because this county has been embarrassed,” Allen said. “ … We have a county administrator that has made allegations against a new incoming chair and against prominent citizens in this county with no factual evidence whatsoever.
“This council is obligated — people are tired of the good ol’ boy system.”
Council member Harold Worley said he wants to see the SLED investigation before any action was made. Council member Tyler Servant agreed, saying all parties should be considered innocent until proven guilty. If Carotti and Eldridge tried to frame Gardner, Worley said he would vote to fire the current administrator and then move the new administrator to fire Carotti.
“You won’t have to sir, I will quit,” Carotti said in response. “If I lose the trust of my client, I will quit. You don’t have to play any politics with me.”
Eldridge did not say much during the meeting, but did give a letter to council members detailing his thoughts. According to our news partner, WPDE, the administrator wrote that he wanted any discussion of potentially terminating his job to be done openly for a chance to defend himself in front of the public. He asked for a SLED investigation per the request of some council members, WPDE reported.
Worley later said if it turns out the chairman was a part of an extortion scheme, then it is “a sad day for Horry County.”
“It saddens me that any body or any person, elected or not elected, would do anything to embarrass this council,” Worley said. “It’s appalling.”
Typically executive sessions are used to discuss personnel matters or litigation. Gardner said his purpose for calling the meeting was to get more information to council members and to allow for discussion of Eldridge’s future at the county.
After the meeting, Gardner said he currently was not planning to meet with Eldridge ahead of the Jan. 10 regular council meeting. When asked what it is going to be like working with his administrator after Friday’s meeting, he did not have an answer.
“That’s a wonderful question,” Gardner said. “I do not know the answer to that.”