Waccamaw Economic Opportunity Council leader faces ouster

At least two Waccamaw Economic Opportunity Council board members plan to ask the state Office of Economic Opportunity for an investigation into board Chairman Zacharius Grate, saying they think he should be removed from the board.

Board members James Scott and Susan Sejda said Grate lies to board members, manipulates their decisions and acts as though he, not the board, is running the agency.

"There is a personal agenda that's set by the board chairman," Scott said. "I can see it in his attitude."

Grate could not be reached for comment Monday.

Scott said he thinks the agency is running well, but isn't certain that some poor people in Horry, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties are getting the help they should because of problems on the board.

The agency gets about $15 million in federal money a year to help low-income residents with things such as Head Start, weatherization of homes and rent, mortgage and utility assistance. Typically, say EOC staff members, thousands of people are on waiting lists for assistance.

Among other things, Scott questioned why board members have never been shown the letter in which the board's chosen candidate for the agency's executive director turned down the job. He and Sejda said they also want to know why the board continues to use Conway attorney Ralph Wilson for legal advice, even though the board specifically said it did not want to because they said he doesn't have the necessary experience.

Wilson is a former Horry County solicitor whose experience is in criminal law, Sejda said. The board wants an attorney who has experience in the law governing community action agencies.

Sejda said eight board members tried last week to call a special meeting to discuss those matters and the construction of a new Head Start center in the Choppee community of Georgetown County, but were stopped from doing so when Grate persuaded two of the eight to withdraw their support of the session.

The board's bylaws said that a special meeting can be called by 51 percent of the board members, which would currently be eight.

Sejda said it was the intention of the eight that all items at the meeting would be discussed in open session.

Scott said he believes Grate lied to him when trying to persuade him to remove his name from the list. He said that Grate told him that Ken McManus, director of the state Office of Economic Opportunity that oversees the agency, has threatened to shut down the agency if board problems aren't resolved.

"I said nothing of the sort," McManus said Monday. "That's a complete fabrication from somebody."

Scott said Grate further suggested that the board should meet privately to iron out problems, which Scott knew would constitute an illegal meeting.

Scott questioned the board's frequent and at times lengthy closed-door sessions. In a number of those closed-door meetings before the last two meetings, things would be discussed during the sessions that state law says can't be legally discussed in an executive session, according to board members who were present.

"Going into executive session every meeting is not necessary," Scott said.

He said that some new board members, appointed or elected since last summer, have had to rely on Grate to tell them what the board should do and how they should operate. He said that now, however, some have researched the information independently and are ready to act.

"All I'm asking is for the board members to do what is right for the agency," he said. "It's going to be a tough battle, but we will get there."

Sejda said she and other board members are close to resigning because of frustration. She said that she plans to work to resolve board problems for another two months. If no headway is made, she said she will give up her seat.

Sejda said the board members who are seeking the special meeting want to restore items to the official minutes of a past board meeting that were deleted at the board's meeting last week.

The board voted at that meeting to delete references to a discussion about the search for an agency executive director and a reconsideration of a rejection of a board member who had been elected to represent an area that centers on Myrtle Beach.

Sejda said Grate should be removed from the board for not adhering to bylaws, interfering in the day-to-day operations of the agency and manipulating board members by giving them incomplete or selective information so they will make the decisions he wants them to.

She said board members will continue to press their grievances and try to schedule a special meeting to discuss them.

"We're still fighting to make this a legal meeting," she said. "It's not over yet.