Why? remains big question in Horry police chief’s early retirement

By the Editorial Board

Horry County taxpayers don’t know much more about the unexpected early retirement of the police chief than we did two weeks ago. Questions remain as to why? From information released last week, under a Freedom of Information Act request, we know Horry County is paying $60,000-plus to the South Carolina Retirement System to make Saundra Rhodes eligible for retirement.

Rhodes worked in the county police department for more than 23 years, rising to the top position four years ago. Her retirement announcement in late April was unexpected, and she alluded to looking forward to other employment although she was not specific about that being in law enforcement.

Rhodes’ retirement comes as the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) is investigating individual Horry County police officers. Two civil lawsuits allege sexual assault by a detective and misconduct in another sexual assault case. In the latter case, three years passed from the crime and an arrest.

One member of the Horry County Council, Paul Prince, says the council should have voted on the $60,000 buyout. Prince, the veteran representative of District 9, says he’s fielded concerns from constituents asking “where do you get off spending tax dollars like that?” Prince adds his own objection, saying “We can’t be just giving money away; that should not have happened without a full council vote, and I didn’t know anything about it until it hit the paper.”

Prince cited a concern that the Rhodes payout might set a precedent. Not likely, one would think, as the Rhodes retirement is unique – there is only one police chief. Another county employee close to retirement might be helped, or not, depending on the circumstances. In any case, the county council does not have a vote. Nor should it. Most council members recognize the council’s policy-making, budgetary and taxing roles – not micro-managing day-to-day operations.

It’s worth noting that Deputy Chief Scott Rutherford last week submitted paperwork for his June 6 retirement. He has 25 years with the department.

Personnel matters involving department heads such as the police chief, are the call of the county administrator, Chris Eldridge. Other council members, including Johnny Vaught and Bill Howard, reiterated the fact that the elected council members are not involved in personnel decisions.

On the Rhodes retirement, Howard said: “I don’t know any details, and it really isn’t something I need to know.” We generally agree; however, when the county’s top public safety official unexpectedly announces her retirement, council members and taxpayers are entitled to transparency on the situation.

Surely, personnel matters are sensitive. Add to that the ongoing SLED investigation, and reasonable people understand that Eldridge may be in a position where he cannot speak now to the details of why Rhodes retired. Did Eldridge nudge her to request retirement? Or did Rhodes seek Eldridge’s help in an early retirement? Is the now retired chief personally connected to the SLED investigation? These are questions that deserve answers.

After SLED completes its investigation, Eldridge should tell taxpayers more details as to why Saundra Rhodes retired early. It’s about being transparent and maintaining public confidence in county government and the police department.