Horry County Council members abruptly ended their meeting Tuesday night rather than talk about how much the county spends in legal fees.
Councilman Al Allen had requested that the attorney spending be placed on the agenda, but the council voted to adjourn the meeting just before the item was about to be discussed. Allen, who pushed for a debate before the adjournment vote, declined to talk about the bizarre conclusion to the meeting as he walked to the parking lot outside the Horry County Government and Justice Center.
“I hate to dodge you and stuff, but I ain’t got no comment right now,” he said. “I just need to go home and settle down.”
Allen has taken issue with the county’s legal representation in recent years, and specifically with county attorney Arrigo Carotti. In 2019, Allen suggested that council members hire a separate lawyer to represent the council instead of employing the same attorney to represent both the council and county staff.
Allen’s 2019 suggestion came after council members learned that Carotti had emailed state police telling them their investigation of extortion allegations involving council chairman Johnny Gardner should not result in a finding of “unfounded,” but they should continue probing the relationships between Gardner and some of his business associates.
Gardner was eventually cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, and the news of Carotti’s email prompted some council members to accuse the county attorney of interfering with a state investigation.
Despite Allen’s suggestion, most council members supported keeping Carotti and the existing attorney structure.
After Tuesday’s meeting, most council members refused to publicly explain what had just transpired. Councilman Johnny Vaught said there was some confusion among several council members about how information about legal fees might be presented during the meeting. He added that the legal fees would likely appear on a future agenda for public discussion.
“It was a simple misunderstanding,” he said.
Horry County budget records show that the county spent just under $500,000 on staffing for the county attorney’s office in the last fiscal year, which ended on June 30. That same fiscal year, the county spent nearly $650,000 on contractual services, including outside legal firms.
For example, the county hired private sector lawyers to represent the county in the hospitality fee lawsuit filed by the city of Myrtle Beach. That case was officially settled last month.
A sudden end
About an hour and 20 minutes into Tuesday’s meeting, councilman Dennis DiSabato made the motion to adjourn. Along with the legal fees, council members were also scheduled to discuss a potential land sale in a closed-door session.
Gardner asked DiSabato if he wanted to end the meeting before tackling the other items. DiSabato noted that his motion was not debatable under the rules of procedure that the council follows.
“I’ve got things I’ve got to do for the business of the county,” Gardner said.
DiSabato countered that under the procedural rules if Gardner didn’t process his motion he could do it himself. DiSabato then called for the vote.
“I’ve never heard of this,” Allen said.
When Carotti addressed the council, he said DiSabato’s motion was acceptable.
The council voted 8-4 to adjourn.
“We have a lot of stuff to do here,” Gardner protested. “We’ve got memorial dedications. We’ve got executive session. We’ve got the business of the county. But we’re not going to be heard on that because we have one council member who has asked for a vote to adjourn.”
DiSabato pointed out that seven other councilmen voted with him.
Before the chairman formally ended the meeting, councilman Harold Worley asked the council to take a five-minute recess.
That led to another unusual move where most council members left the room, though they didn’t say where they were going.
Legally, a majority of council members can’t meet secretly. When asked what happened during the break, Gardner and Worley both said the council divided into smaller, separate groups to avoid running afoul of state law. Neither man would say what those discussions involved. DiSabato also declined to comment.
The recess went on for about 13 minutes. Then most council members returned to the room and Gardner hit the gavel to close the meeting.
There’s no question that records of government payments to attorneys are public, said Jay Bender, a Columbia attorney and an expert on the state’s open records law, in an email.
“A summary of payments to lawyers and law firms is specifically public as ‘information in or taken from any account, voucher, or contract dealing with the receipt or expenditure of public or other funds by public bodies,’” he said, quoting state law.