Transparency missing in handling of Horry police chief’s `retirement’

By the Editorial Board

Red flags go up when high profile people leave their jobs by so-called mutual agreement and that surely is so in the retirement/resignation of Horry County Police Chief Saundra Rhodes.

Rhodes’ announcement last week stunned most folks not in the loop of the department and Horry County government. Rhodes was the first black female to hold the county “top cop” post. She was named chief four years ago and served in a variety of positions in the department for more than 20 years.

Rhodes was appointed in 2012, the same year Chris Eldridge was hired as county administrator. In May 2015, Eldridge fired Fire Chief Fred Crosby. Eight months earlier, Eldridge maneuvered out the highly regarded public safety administrator Paul Whitten. In another area, Eldridge also forced Michael LaPier not to renew his contract as director of county airports in September 2013.

“Mutual agreement” often is human resources code for a scenario something like this: It’s time for you to go, and here’s how. We’ll give you a generous severance/retirement package ... you’ll sign an agreement saying you won’t publicly discuss details of your retirement package or reasons for your retirement. An agreement along those lines would explain the lack of details in Rhodes’ announcement and making no comment beyond her statement. The department’s public information officer said there would be no further information “at this time.” End of story, in other words, as far as county government is concerned. Nevertheless, the situation begs the question, why?

In her announcement, Rhodes alluded to possibly more to her career, saying “I am looking forward to future challenges that will measure up to that as I have faced thus far in my career.” Rhodes was not specific about law enforcement, so perhaps she simply felt the need to move on, to do something else. Reaching that point is understandable for anyone in law enforcement nowadays.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division has an investigation of department individuals, apparently linked to lawsuits alleging misconduct in sexual assault cases. Ultimately connecting these dots to Rhodes appears unlikely, leaving other why? questions. Did Rhodes in some way offend a member of Horry County Council? Or a member’s spouse? What part of her performance as chief – or her personal conduct – is not up to Eldridge’s expectations?

Did Eldridge nudge Rhodes into her decision? Here’s another interesting angle. Prior to the Monday morning announcement, Councilman Johnny Vaught told The Sun News that Rhodes’ retirement was a mutual decision with the county. Vaught, on the council’s Administration Committee, noted “The council has one employee and that’s Chris Eldridge. We don’t get into personnel matters ... we don’t micro-manage anything. The decision is his.”

In a follow-up report, Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said he did not know Rhodes’ reasons. “After 23 years, she turned in her resignation and retirement – she’s ready to take retirement and seek other opportunities and we wish her well.”

We also wish she – and/or county administrator Eldridge – will be more forthcoming as to the reasons for Rhodes’ retirement/resignation. More transparency better serves all concerned, including the public.