The drama in Surfside Beach continues.
The latest controversy surrounding the coastal community sees three town council members suing three other members of the council and the town, claiming a vote to award a contract to a bidding party for construction of a revamped fishing pier was illegal.
Mayor Bob Hellyer and council members Cindy Keating and Michael Drake filed the lawsuit Monday in Horry County Court against council members David Pellegrino, Debbie Scoles and Paul Holder and the town of Surfside Beach.
At issue is a vote taken during a special town council meeting early this month to award a contract to Orion Marine Group and FBi Construction for construction.
The town’s fishing pier was decimated nearly four years ago due to Hurricane Matthew, and the plan is to tear it down and build a new, sturdier one with three one-story buildings.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) agreed to grant the town more than $9 million for the project.
That grant money, officials have said, cannot be used for reconstructing the current two buildings on the pier that have housed a diner and ice cream and bait and tackle shop. Those two buildings on the pier must be torn down because the new pier is required to be higher in elevation.
As a joint venture, Orion/FBi and two other bidding parties, Consensus Construction & Consulting, Inc. and Cape Romain Contractors, had submitted bids, which were publicly opened June 11.
The council also voted to establish an independent committee to evaluate bids’ compliance with the town’s specifications for the pier project and quality of proposals received. Myrtle Beach resident Ed Carey has served on the committee.
Town leaders held a special meeting that was live streamed on June 30, and officials spoke with the bidding parties during sessions unable to be listened to by the general public.
A motion from Scoles resulted in a successful vote to hold a meeting July 3 to discuss and award the bid contract, the lawsuit said.
But during a subsequent special meeting July 1, Scoles made another motion to hold a vote to award the pier bid to Orion/FBi and “authorize the town administrator to execute any agreements and to negotiate value engineering and to proceed with bonding for funding the project.”
Orion/FBi had submitted a base bid of $14.84 million, the lowest base bid submitted, and an alternate price tag of $13.44 million. Each of those price tags include the cost of the three buildings.
Scoles, Holder and Pellegrino voted in favor, while Hellyer and Keating voted in opposition. Drake and councilman Bruce Dietrich were not in attendance.
During that meeting, the lawsuit said, Hellyer asked Scoles why the bid was being awarded then instead of July 3.
Scoles replied she had wanted to hear the architect and engineer's answers to questions the council and the pier committee had, according to the lawsuit.
Having all questions answered, she added, there was no reason to wait until two days later to award the bid. Scoles said the council had all the information they needed to move forward and highlighted July 3 being a holiday for town employees.
“I’m confident that the low responsive bidder is … the most qualified to perform this work,” she said of Orion/FBi.
Keating said she had not seen any references or recommendations from the bidders’ previous clients.
“We do not have all of our questions answered,” she said, “nor all the information presented at this time.”
Hellyer also agreed that further evaluation was needed.
Pellegrino, however, said, “We did our due diligence.”
He added there were many references and projects included in presentations discussed earlier in the week.
“We listened to everything,” Pellegrino said. “We asked our questions.”
As for Orion/FBi, Pellegrino said the bidding party answered queries.
Town Administrator Dennis Pieper said in making calls, “nothing negative” had been reported about the bidders.
On July 12, Hellyer, Drake and Keating sent a letter to Pellegrino, Holder, Scoles, Pieper and town attorney Elise Crosby, that said the approval of the bid award and authorizations given to the town administrator violated the town’s governing documents and state law. The complaint accused them of failing to respond to all of the statements contained within the letter.
The complaint says that the agenda for the July 1 special meeting sent to the public includes a call to order, discussion with the architect and engineers and an executive session for “discussion of negotiations incident to proposed contractual arrangements and/or receipt of legal advice related to the Surfside Beach Pier Restoration Project.”
The agenda for the meeting sent to members of the media also contained “motions related to executive session.” This is reflected in the meeting minutes that were included as an attachment in court documents as well.
The lawsuit contends that the vote to award the bid and for other action items could only be added to the agenda during the meeting by a two-thirds vote from the council members present and upon council members finding that an emergency or an exigent circumstance exists if the item wasn’t added to the agenda.
The suit argues that this didn’t happen and that the addition to the agenda (the vote) violated South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
The new agenda item was not announced in open session at all as part of the executive session agenda, and the actions taken by Scoles, Pellegrino, and Holder weren’t consistent with the announced purpose of the meeting, the suit said.
“The record reflects that the unnoticed action items … were not discussed during the executive session,” said the suit, which calls the executive session illegal.
Hellyer, Keating and Drake are asking the court to declare the actions taken during the July 1 meeting unlawful, invalidate those actions, issue an injunction against future illegal conduct that violates the FOIA and for costs and attorney fees.
Some in Surfside Beach have been critical of the lawsuit, declaring it a holdup obstructing the pier from being built.
“Now we have a lawsuit against the council people? … Get over yourself and go do what’s right,” town resident Chris Stamey said during Tuesday’s town council meeting. “Get the pier built.”
Others have expressed their support.
“I’d like to applaud the three who took a stand for our town,” town resident Judy Henion said.
Pellegrino said Tuesday that he doesn’t agree with the lawsuit.
“I think it’s totally incorrect,” he said. “You look at the law; I think a judge is going to throw it out immediately.”
One thing that town leaders, including the only council member who isn’t a plaintiff or defendant in the lawsuit, do agree on is that the pier needs to be built.
“The pier’s got to get fixed,” Dietrich said. “It’s as simple as that. Let’s get it done.”