Eldridge under fire

Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge speaks to county council.

An effort to suspend Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge dramatically imploded Friday afternoon when the county council members seeking Eldridge’s ouster could not muster enough votes to follow through with their plan.

The result was a heated and chaotic meeting that ended with no meaningful action being taken.

When the special meeting was announced Thursday, the agenda called for a closed-door session to discuss the “employment, appointment, compensation, promotion, demotion, discipline, or release of an employee.” No other information was provided.

But records obtained by myhorrynews.com indicate some county council members had planned to vote to suspend Eldridge with pay and install Horry County Emergency Management Director Randy Webster as interim administrator. 

Eldridge’s proposed suspension would have continued until the conclusion of an investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), which is looking into extortion allegations involving new Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner. Eldridge requested the SLED investigation on Dec. 20, the same day Gardner was sworn in.

“To tell you the truth, this is a distraction,” Gardner said of the extortion claims. “I don’t know why it was brought about. I don’t know why it was handled the way it was handled. But it is and it was and we’ve got to get through. We’ll rely on SLED to do their investigation. We’ll cooperate with them. We welcome it. We’ll move forward and hopefully get back to governing.”

Eldridge asked SLED to investigate a lunch conversation that Gardner and his associate Luke Barefoot had with Sandy Davis, president of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp. (EDC), and Sherri Steele, the EDC’s director of investor relations. The EDC is the county’s industry recruitment arm and receives more than $1 million each year in public funding. 

Although the discussion was secretly recorded by Steele, there are different interpretations of what happened at that meeting.

The most detailed account was documented in a five-page memo written by county attorney Arrigo Carotti, who said Davis told him about the conversation. Carotti has also heard a portion of the recording. According to the memo, Barefoot told Davis that if the EDC hired Gardner’s political consultant for $30,000 or $40,000, she could prevent a local political blogger from publishing a disparaging story about Davis' lack of education.

Davis maintains she never felt threatened or pressured to hire the consultant, but Eldridge requested the SLED investigation a day after hearing the recording. 

That same day, the popular Columbia blog Fitsnews published the Carotti memo, sparking a political firestorm.

That led to Friday’s meeting, which quickly devolved into intense disagreements about what the council should do.

The furor began when councilman Johnny Vaught asked that the panel go behind closed doors to receive a legal briefing about the Gardner situation rather than talk about Eldridge’s job status, which was the subject referenced on the published agenda. Vaught said he thought it would be good for council members to set the record straight.

But some councilmen argued that they should discuss the item on the agenda because that’s what they had told the public what they would do. Others said the entire conversation should be held in open session.

“I don’t see what we’re going to talk about back there that we can’t discuss out here in the open, in public,” said councilman Dennis DiSabato. 

Councilman Al Allen agreed.

“It’s OK for me to have it out here,” he said. “Let’s just open up Pandora’s box. Because this county has been embarrassed and it’s time for the people of Horry County to see us doing our job. … We can hire, fire or discipline the county administrator. We have a county administrator that has made allegations against a new incoming chairman and prominent citizens in this county with no factual evidence whatsoever. … The people are tired of the good ol’ boy system. They want to see something done.” 

Councilman Harold Worley urged his peers not to discuss the allegations until the state police are through with their inquiry. 

“SLED needs to finish,” he said. “And I’ll say this to you, Chris, and you, Arrigo: If it comes back that you guys tried to set this man (Gardner) up, I will vote to fire you.”

“You won’t have to sir,” Carotti replied. “I’ll quit. If I lose the trust of my client, I’ll quit. You don’t have to play any politics when it comes to me.”

Should the investigation turn out poorly for Gardner, Worley said “it’s a sad day in Horry County.”

Allen also questioned Carotti, asking whether he represented Eldridge or the council. 

“If there’s a difference of opinion between the council and the administrator, is it ethical for him to play both sides of this?” Allen asked. 

“I wouldn’t do that nor have I ever done that,” Carotti said. “My integrity has also been challenged here, which at the appropriate time and venue, I will respond.”

Carotti pointed out that he represents a majority of the council and the administrator on government matters. Eldridge has a personal attorney, as does Carotti.

Council members voted 10-2 against going behind closed doors. But despite the arguments for openness and transparency, council members decided to adjourn the meeting rather than continuing their conversation in public.

The controversy is steeped in local politics. Gardner narrowly defeated incumbent Mark Lazarus in the June Republican Primary and Gardner's supporters have blamed Eldridge and Carotti for what they contend is a manufactured scandal created by Lazarus loyalists who want to hurt the new chairman.

Gardner’s supporters have also said he can’t work with Eldridge because the administrator reported him to state authorities and the chairman can’t trust him.    

Both Eldridge and Carotti declined to comment. 

However, Eldridge did provide a letter to council members after the meeting. In the letter, he asked that any discussions about a suspension be held in public. He said he has done nothing wrong and unwarranted discipline would damage his career and make him a target for retaliation.

“I will not have my integrity attacked without means of defense in public,” Eldridge wrote. “I should add that this effort appears to have been initiated by some who are the subjects of what is being investigated.”

Eldridge wrote that Davis told him about the recording of the Gardner meeting but would not provide him with a copy of it. His letter said he hoped that hearing a few minutes of the recording would settle the matter, but it didn’t. Eldridge wrote that some councilmen asked him to report the issue to SLED and he did, leaving the case up to law enforcement. 

“I want to be clear that I wanted no part of any controversy,” he wrote.

Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236

0
0
1
0
1

I'm the editor of myhorrynews.com and the Carolina Forest Chronicle, a weekly newspaper in Horry County, South Carolina. I cover county government, the justice system and agriculture. Know of a story that needs to be covered? Call me at 843-488-7236.

(1) comment

Smithw6079

Would the real Straw man please stand up.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.