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Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner 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

Horry County Council did not interview the five finalists for county administrator in public.

Council members voted 10-2 Wednesday to hold the interviews in a closed-door session, even though those discussions were advertised as open to the public. Council chairman Johnny Gardner and councilman Al Allen voted against the private interviews.

“That’s a shame,” Allen said. “Some on this council don’t want the public to know what’s happening.”

Gardner also expressed frustration with the move.

"What questions for these potential county administrators do you have that you have to ask in private?" he asked before the interviews began. 

"There are many such questions like that," replied councilman Johnny Vaught, who made the motion to go into executive session. He said some council members' inadvertent queries "could open this council up for lawsuits."

Gardner disagreed.

"That would be on the individual councilman," he said. "And I've got confidence in all 11 of you."

The five finalists for the position are interim administrator Steve Gosnell, York County Manager Bill Shanahan, Laurens County Administrator Jon Caime, former Myrtle Beach City Councilman Wayne Gray and state Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach. 

The interviews began shortly after 1 p.m. and concluded around 6 p.m.

Council members do not plan on voting to hire an administrator until July 9.

In South Carolina, a public body may interview a job candidate in executive session, said Jay Bender, an attorney and expert on the state's open meetings laws. 

However, Bender said that since the agenda stated the interviews would be held in the open, changing them to a closed session would require a two-thirds majority vote and a finding that the change was in response to an emergency.

The council met the two-thirds requirement, but is the potential for a lawsuit an emergency?

"Not in my view," Bender said via email. "I can’t think of any legitimate legal threat for holding open interviews. And, procrastination or poor planning do not constitute emergencies." 

About 25 people were sitting in council chambers when the interviews were scheduled to begin. Some chanted "Shame, shame" after the council's decision to go into executive session. 

Katharine McManus, who drove down from North Myrtle Beach to watch the interviews, was disappointed with the council’s early exit.

“That is one of the highest paid non-elected positions in Horry County and we can’t hear the interview. Not right,” she said. “I’m going to pay this person’s salary. So yeah, I want to know who’s going to be hired.”

Chip Brown, a Coastal Carolina University political scientist and former Conway city councilman, said he understands why council members would hold the interviews in executive session. 

“The concern about asking certain questions in public for various reasons is a legitimate one,” he said. “There are things that I would not ask in public because they would be either misinterpreted or taken and used against an applicant. … I’ve seen council members take advantage, publicly, of hired staff members and sandbag them and they may try to do that same thing with candidates, which is not real good if you’re trying to attract a good candidate. Because most good candidates are not going to sit for that kind of stuff.”  

During his time in public office, Brown said Conway's council never held open interviews. He also said the public nature of those interviews might discourage top applicants from applying for this job in the future.

“Using that as a rule will cause some people not to apply who you might want to interview and ultimately might want to hire,” he said. “I would not sit and interview in public like that. It’s intimidating enough to sit before 10 or 12 people and have them ask you random questions. And I think that it would have a dampening effect on applicants.”

Brown said he appreciates the concerns about transparency, but he noted that the law allows interviews to be held in executive session and the administrator answers directly to the council, not the public. If the people don’t like the council’s decision, Brown said, they can replace their representatives.

“That is the province of council,” he said of the interviewing process. “And it ought to be only the province of council.”

When asked why the interviews were held behind closed doors after they were billed as public, council members said they didn’t have a say in writing the agenda.

The chairman typically sets the agenda. Council members said Gardner’s predecessor, Mark Lazarus, would often brief them on controversial issues before a meeting to ensure they knew what was happening. They said Gardner doesn't do that.

Vaught said Gardner told the council just before the last regular meeting that he had planned to hold the interviews behind closed doors. 

“Everybody assumed that was going to happen until Friday when we got an email,” he said. “We didn’t know anything about it until then.”

Vaught said county staff even tried to talk the chairman out of the public interviews before the agenda was posted, but he proceeded anyway. 

After the meeting, Gardner acknowledged the process had not gone as he had envisioned.

“Didn’t go the way I anticipated,” he said. “Certainly didn’t go the way I scheduled it to go, but it went.”

Although 45 people applied to be the county's next administrator, 20 of them did not pass the initial screening of the county’s human resources staff, which evaluated education level and professional experience among other qualifications.

The 25 candidates whose applications actually made it to council members’ eyes came from 11 states, according to records obtained by myhorrynews.com. A dozen of them call South Carolina home, though some of those retired here from other states. The pool included six candidates who either are or have been county administrators or managers in this state. 

While county staff do not ask questions about race or gender during the hiring process, an analysis of application records found that most of the 25 candidates who passed the first screening are white men. Just two are women.

All five of the finalists are white men living in South Carolina.

Horry County's last administrator, Chris Eldridge, resigned in April. He had served in the position since 2012. His final salary was $217,599.86 and he also received a car allowance of about $10,000 per year. 

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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