Elected chairman vs. appointed administrator conflict untenable

By The Myrtle Beach Sun News Editorial Board

The elected Horry County Council’s conflict with its appointed administrator, Chris Eldridge, was not resolved last week, but it may in a few weeks when Eldridge’s employment contract is up for review at the end of April.

Last week, the council deadlocked 6-6 on dismissing Eldridge, thereby saving, for now, the administrator’s $211,000-plus job. Councilman Harold Worley, District 1 (Little River, North Myrtle Beach), said during the meeting, “I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this, and I wish we could have avoided today.” He likely reflected the feelings of many others involved or interested in county government. Prior to the vote, Council Chairman Johnny Gardner was asked if he could work with Eldridge. Absolutely not, the chairman said, reflecting his feeling about Eldridge’s motivation.

Gardner, elected countywide last year to a four-year term, deserves an administrator who can work with the chairman in the best interests of Horry County. The chairman-administrator conflict is untenable.

An investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division cleared the council chairman in an unusual case of alleged attempted extortion. Eldridge asked for the investigation based on portions of a recording of a dinner meeting including Gardner, his associate Luke Barefoot and officials of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation.

Six council members feel that Eldridge acted properly in asking for the investigation, based on what he heard on the recording. Six, including Gardner, evidently think Eldridge was motivated by anti-Gardner feelings. Questions remain about Eldridge’s call for the investigation partly because of the administrator’s arrogant attitude. Even so, the request for the SLED investigation is not a good basis for termination.

So, the council has to move on and that must include a serious evaluation of Eldridge’s job performance. That’s part of the council’s oversight responsibility. Eldridge has acted as though he, not the elected council, is the head of county government; that should be a concern of every council member. Eldridge consistently has shown a willful lack of transparency; he did insist on an open meeting of the council when it suited his personal interests. He treats Freedom of Information Act requests as optional and has thwarted the flow of public information by putting unreasonable costs on copies of public documents. He is unresponsive to the news media, which represent the public, meaning this is a matter of public interest, not media self-interest.

Eldridge was hired in 2012 at a salary of $150,000. Six years later, his salary was $211,000 (plus a $10,000 annual vehicle allowance). The salary increased by nearly $28,000 after Eldridge assumed the duties of an assistant county administrator for public safety after Paul Whitten resigned in September 2014. Whitten had been director of public safety, including the police, fire rescue and emergency management departments. Two years after Eldridge assumed the public safety duties, the assistant administrator position was re-instated. Eldridge also named Saundra Rhodes chief of the police department; she had been acting chief.

At the meeting last week, prior to the 6-6 vote, council members discussed waiting until April to act on Eldridge’s contract, but member Al Allen, District 11 (Aynor area), playing to the anti-Eldridge crowd, pushed for an immediate vote.

Audience demands, or those on social media, should not decide whether a county employee continues in his job. Eldridge rightly noted he was not hired to be popular, nor “… to be in the graces of each council member.” There are good reasons, however, to seriously evaluate the administrator’s overall performance — including his management-leadership style and transparency in all regards — as his employment contract comes up for review.