MB City Council emails illustrate value of FOI

By The Editorial Board

Two Myrtle Beach City Council members were anything but shy about giving, via emails, their views on law enforcement to the city manager and police department administrators, as well as other members. The revelations were brought to light after The Sun News requested release of the emails through the S.C. Freedom of Information law – illustrating the commonweal of the law.

Most readers understand that some information of value to all citizens isn’t automatically part of the public record. The emails of Councilmen Randal Wallace and Mike Lowder are in that category. Both are seeking re-election in November.

In April, following shootings which naturally raised some concerns about the impact of violence on tourism, Lowder wrote other council members: “We as a city including many years of passive enforcement has created these problems that continued to be ignored spring after spring.” Lowder, a former law enforcement officer for both the city and Horry County, runs a private security firm.

Prior to the email, Lowder, during a council meeting, expressed disagreement with the policing strategy of Chief Warren Gall, now retired. After 20 years, Gall stepped down, having been counseled by City Manager John Pedersen. Counseled is our word; Pedersen acknowledges he talked to Gall about retirement and that was entirely Pedersen’s call, the council and mayor understood their role, et cetera. That is, council members have no business attempting to manage any city department.

In a farewell letter to his officers, Gall wrote that the city “intends to pursue a new direction.” In the Wallace email, the councilman passed on complaints about a lack of police presence along Ocean Boulevard. Wallace wrote Pedersen, Gall and then assistant and now interim chief Amy Prock: “I am hearing this over and over again and these folks are actually calling me not because they are mad ... but because they are concerned about the situation and out of fear I may end up in trouble in the fall over it.” The last few words refer to the November municipal election.

Last week, in The Sun News report on the emails, Wallace expressed frustration with Pedersen’s proposed – but not approved – change in Ocean Boulevard traffic flow, to three lanes. The council directed Pedersen to keep the present pattern. Wallace feels stronger police presence should have been proposed, but he acknowledges the safe Memorial Day weekend – attributed in part to the nightly traffic loop – perhaps mitigates concerns of downtown business owners.

The ultimate effectiveness of the 23-mile loop is another subject. Some residents of Carolina Forest claim the loop disrupts their lives. “We were trapped in, and out of the neighborhoods,” Rich Malzone told the Horry County Council. Carolina Forest is unincorporated, not in the city of Myrtle Beach. Malzone (Make Myrtle Beaches, Free, Clean and Safe) represents an unspecified number of Carolina Forest residents. The loop was set for 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. and not actually used all nights.

Members of a city council surely have a right to communicate with the city manager, and Wallace’s email was to the city manager, the chief, and assistant chief. Was he attempting to manage police operations? Did the emails of Wallace and Lowder – and who-knows-what personal communications of other council member – influence John Pedersen to talk to Warren Gall about the chief’s retirement?

The city manager serves at the will of the council, so it’s a safe bet Pedersen listens to council members. The impact of what they might say will depend on how many are saying it.