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Horry County Councilman Al Allen (center) makes a point as he questions Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge on Tuesday. The council split a decision to fire Eldridge, but pay him for six more months in addition to health benefits. A tie vote counts as a defeat so Eldridge is still the administrator. His contract expires in April with an automatic one-year renewal. Al Allen, county commissioner, said Eldridge makes more than $211,000 annually with a $10,000 a year car allowance. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

Nearly 50 people applied to become Horry County’s next administrator.

The county’s human resources department received 45 applications before Wednesday’s deadline, according to records obtained by myhorrynews.com. However, 20 of those individuals lacked the minimum qualifications for the job. That means county officials will likely begin whittling down a list of 25 qualified professionals to determine which ones the council should bring in for interviews. 

“We should be able to get it down to five,” said Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner, who plans to review the list of candidates on Friday. He said he didn’t know exactly who had applied for the position, but staff informed him that some of the applicants are local. He said he hopes to find the best candidate in the group.

“That’s part of the reason I was elected,” he said. “People wanted a change in the way government was running.”

The next administrator will replace Chris Eldridge, who stepped down in April. Hired in 2012, Eldridge departed after Gardner said he could not work with him. The chairman’s frustration stemmed from Eldridge’s Dec. 20 request for a state investigation of extortion allegations involving Gardner, who was sworn in on the day Eldridge contacted the state police. Gardner was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in February.

Since Eldridge’s resignation, council members have quietly discussed potential candidates to replace him. Some even spoke with state Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, about the job. Clemmons was recently a finalist for the Myrtle Beach city attorney’s post, but he did not get that position. Former Myrtle Beach City Councilman Wayne Gray was also considered as a potential administrator.

Interim administrator Steve Gosnell has been mentioned as a strong candidate for the job. Before he was named interim administrator, Gosnell was serving as the assistant administrator over infrastructure and regulation. He has worked with the county for 26 years.

Gosnell has not publicly commented on his interest in the position, but councilmen Harold Worley and Johnny Vaught have said Gosnell told them he would like the job.

Last month, some council members talked about calling off the search and naming Gosnell administrator. However, they opted to continue with the process after objections from Gardner and councilman Al Allen. 

Gardner said he wants the search to remain open, though he’s not opposed to Gosnell taking the post.

“I like Steve,” he said. “Steve might be the guy.”

Worley has maintained he will support Gosnell for the job unless a better candidate emerges. Vaught agreed.

“How are you going to find a better candidate with the experience in Horry County that Steve has got?” Vaught asked. “You can’t. Because when you look at his qualifications as far as working within the county and the county system and the reputation he has within his department, there’s nobody that could be better, really. I don’t see how somebody could.”

In recent years, Vaught said county council members have been criticized for bringing in outside candidates to lead county departments instead of trying to fill those positions internally. He stressed that there’s an advantage in not having to train a new administrator.

“They’re going to have to learn the whole system,” he said. “There’s going to be a lag time there. It’s going to set us back that much further.” 

Statewide, it’s not uncommon for a longtime assistant to move into a top administrative position, sometimes without a formal search, said Tim Winslow, an attorney with the S.C. Association of Counties.

Earlier this year, Calhoun County leaders did just that by simply promoting the interim administrator to the head job.

“I don’t consider that unusual at all,” Winslow said. “If you’ve got a guy in house that council wants, it actually make a lot of sense.”

But is a search mandatory?

Jay Bender, a longtime media attorney and expert on the state’s Freedom of Information Act, pointed out that state law allows the public to review certain records from a search to fill a position.

“The law allows a citizen to inspect material gathered during a search for the members of the group from which the selection is made, provided that the group is no fewer than three candidates,” he said via email. “To me that suggests that a search is required, but some public bodies have made a hiring decision without holding a search and then saying there were no applicants for the position.”

Winslow doesn’t dispute the law’s requirements and he said all public records from a search should be released. But he questions the value of holding a search when the outcome is already determined.  

“If they are going to hire internally,” he said, “is it really fair to have the search, have people apply and interview, go through the entire process and then, surprise, we just hired the guy we were going to hire the whole time?” 

Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236

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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.

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