A day after rejecting media requests to release the resignation agreement for former Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge, county officials made the document public Thursday.
The contract — which is a public record under state law — was signed Tuesday night by Eldridge and Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner. County staff initially withheld the agreement, calling the document confidential. But on Thursday afternoon, council members agreed to provide the contract.
“I believe in transparency,” Gardner said.
Council members voted 9-2 Tuesday in favor of the contract. During the meeting, councilman Tyler Servant said he objected to the approximately $300,000 cost of the deal, but his peers criticized him, saying they could not discuss the terms of the arrangement because of non-disclosure language in the contract, which they had just reviewed in a closed-door session.
Myhorrynews.com filed a public records request for the document, but on Wednesday county staff declined to release it.
The next day, county attorney Arrigo Carotti sent an email to council members saying media outlets were pressuring the county to release the contract and had "given indications that they will disparage the County if we do not voluntarily produce the document," according to records obtained by Myhorrynews.com.
Carotti wrote that he attempted to head off negative media coverage by reaching out to Eldridge's lawyer and asking her if the former administrator would agree to the county releasing the contract. The county received written consent from Eldridge's attorney and provided the document to the media at 4 p.m. Thursday.
The mutual confidentiality clause in Eldridge's separation agreement is unusual for county employees, according to Carotti's email.
"As far as I am aware, we have never produced a separation agreement with such a provision," Carotti wrote, though he noted the county did face a similar situation with the media regarding former Horry County Police Chief Saundra Rhodes, who retired in 2016 amid a state investigation of the police department. Four former officers were later indicted as part of that probe.
When Rhodes stepped down as Horry’s top police officer, she and county leaders quietly negotiated a deal. Rhodes was one year and seven months short of being fully vested in the state retirement system, so the county agreed to pay more than $61,000 so she could receive full retirement benefits.
When this was done, county officials provided no explanation for the payout.
Carotti's email states that Rhodes' attorney did not consent to the county releasing her separation agreement.
But not providing a separation agreement would be a violation of state law, said Jay Bender, an attorney and expert on the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
“There’s no legal justification for withholding that contract,” he said.
Bender pointed out that state law is clear on this issue.
“The county cannot by contract avoid the requirement that the contract and payments made pursuant to are public records subject to mandatory disclosure,” he said.
Despite the county’s initial objection to releasing the Eldridge document, Myhorrynews.com reported the financial details on Tuesday, including that Eldridge would receive 15 months’ worth of compensation and a year of health insurance.
The contract reflects that reporting.
The administrator’s final salary was $217,599.86 and he also received a car allowance of about $10,000 per year.
Under the separation agreement, Eldridge’s resignation is technically not effective for one year but he is not allowed to perform any of the administrator's job duties or present himself as a representative of Horry County Government. He also had to turn over all county property.
Eldridge will receive bi-weekly compensation for a year and county benefits, including health insurance and his car allowance. He will also be paid for the vacation time he has accumulated.
Although the regular pay and benefits continue for a year, the county will divide the equivalent of three months of the administrator’s salary and make two payments: one to his lawyer and another to the state retirement system on Eldridge’s behalf.
The total separation package will cost more than $300,000.
Apart from the financial information, the contract states that Eldridge agreed not to sue the county and county officials said they would not publicly disparage him.
The document states that if anyone asks council members about Eldridge, they are to say "Chris Eldridge will no longer serve as Horry County Administrator. The County appreciates his many years of service to the citizens of Horry County."
Carotti reminded council members of this provision in his email to them on Thursday.
"Please, note, however, that under the terms of the Agreement, we are still restricted in what we can say regarding Chris’ separation from the County (no disparaging comments or conduct, no discussion of any matters contained in or relating the Agreement, comments limited to “Chris Eldridge will no longer serve as Horry County Administrator. The County appreciates his many years of service to the citizens of Horry County”, all inquiries by prospective employers directed to HR)," he wrote. "If questions come up about the Agreement, I would simply refer to the Agreement and say that I have nothing to add."
Eldridge had served as county administrator since 2012.
His most recent contract, which was signed in 2015, was scheduled to expire on April 21. However, the document included a provision that the contract would be automatically renewed on its anniversary date for one year unless the council gave him six months’ notice that the agreement would be terminated. The council did not provide that notice.
If the council had opted to fire Eldridge, his contract stipulated that he would still have been paid an equivalent of six months of his salary.
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