Considering the lack of transparency consistently demonstrated by Horry County government and its now former administrator Chris Eldridge, attempting to keep secret the details of his employment termination agreement fits a disturbing pattern regarding the flow of public information.
On Tuesday, Horry County Council approved a negotiated deal that allowed Eldridge to resign with a large compensation. The 9-2 council vote was in an open meeting, as required by law, after discussion in an executive (closed) session. The exact cost of the deal was not disclosed and council members did not answer questions.
Why? Possibly, officials such as Council Chairman Johnny Gardner and county legal staffers don’t fully understand that the intent of the open records law that requires taxpayers’ business be transparent. Perhaps they just didn’t feel you, the taxpayers, deserved to know how much of a golden parachute Eldridge would receive.
Not until Thursday were the details of the departure document released following formal requests for the contract and its terms by The Sun News and two other news outlets. Why did county attorneys need to meet over two days to decide to release information that should have been available when approved Tuesday?
A contract paid for with taxpayer money is a public document, and the fact that county officials initially agreed to keep it secret is extremely alarming, dangerous and illegal, according to attorney Jay Bender.
In total, Horry County will pay Eldridge well over $305,000 in the next 12 months. He’ll keep his benefits, accrued vacation, vehicle stipend, and we’re paying his attorney fees and a lump sum into his retirement.
Gardner properly abstained from the 9-2 approval, saying “This was a council decision” and he did not want to appear to be driving the departure of Eldridge. Previously, Gardner had told the council he could not work with Eldridge, who had sought an investigation by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division concerning a lunch involving Gardner, his law firm associate Luke Barefoot and two officials of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation. The meeting was before Gardner took office.
The two no votes were by Bill Howard of Myrtle Beach and Tyler Servant of Surfside Beach. Servant spoke first after the executive session, saying he wished to explain his “No” vote. “I agree that we need to move in a different direction with the administrator, but where I disagree is on the ... close to 300,000 ... .” Council members swiftly cut off Servant, claiming the information was private because it was discussed in an executive session.
Negotiating the administrator’s departure is a process that may be done privately, but when the parties have a deal, ready for council’s decision, there is no good reason to keep details secret. Doing so immediately raises questions about what the council is hiding, and quite frankly it makes us question their ability to properly do the jobs they were elected to do. Public employees’ salaries and benefits are clearly public information which must be available.
For how long did the council plan to keep from taxpayers the amount of money Eldridge receives? Did they think we wouldn’t ask? Why did they essentially agree to illegal terms with a non-disclosure agreement? Was this a challenge of your right to know public information by denying it to the news outlets which report on county government?
When Gardner campaigned countywide for the council chairmanship, one of his platforms was transparency, and this initial move surely falls short of that. Other council members also give the impression transparency is not a priority — or that they do not care about following the spirit of the Open Meetings Act.
Going forward, including the search for a new administrator, Horry County Council members and other officials need some education and commitment to their constituents on the value of full transparency and the free flow of public information.