The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating an alleged assault by North Myrtle Beach City Manager Mike Mahaney, the state agency said Friday.
“SLED was requested by the North Myrtle Beach [Police Department] to investigate North Myrtle Beach City Manager Mike Mahaney for an alleged assault,” said SLED spokeswoman Renée Wunderlich. “No other details are available from SLED at this time as agents investigate.”
City council held an emergency meeting at 4 p.m. Friday for an executive session regarding a personnel matter, but the city declined to offer specifics about the nature of the session. Council took no action during the meeting and adjourned after the executive session ended.
After the meeting, city spokesperson Donald Graham said he couldn't comment on the allegations against Mahaney, who's been with the city for about 13 years.
"We don't have a lot to comment on right now because the matter has been referred to SLED, and it's a personnel issue," Graham said. "The city council is taking it very seriously. We've consulted our city attorney and we've consulted an outside labor attorney as well." Graham said the labor attorney was Mike Malone.
Graham said Mahaney would continue to perform his city manager duties "for the time being," pending the SLED investigation.
Mahaney said he had no comment on the allegations.
Laura Weaver, who owns Glass Bottom Kayak Tours in North Myrtle Beach, has accused Mahaney of grabbing her leg Tuesday afternoon during a tense meeting at city hall. The city recently passed an ordinance to regulate kayak tour businesses that operate out of the Cherry Grove Boat Ramp. The new rules require the businesses to pay the city 10% of their gross revenues.
Weaver and Tyler Watkins, Weaver’s business partner, said councilwoman Nikki Fontana had messaged Weaver to come to city hall for a meeting, but she didn’t provide an exact reason.
When Weaver got there, she said, she was ushered into Mahaney’s office where she sat down in a chair surrounded on three sides by Mahaney and two desks in the room, she said. Mahaney and Fontana wanted to talk to her about an email Watkins had sent, Weaver and Watkins said in interviews and voluntary statements they wrote for police.
The week before, Watkins had sent an email to a city employee in the parks and recreation department asking whether another organization with an event on the beach had to pay a fee the same way the kayak companies had done. The email was forwarded to Mahaney.
In her statement to police, Weaver said that Mahaney “began to then berate me over the email, saying that the rest of city council wanted us shut down, but he was trying to help me, but would not do so if we continued to ask questions.” Weaver and Watkins said Mahaney told them he would have to copy city council members if he responded via email, and that was why he wanted to meet in person.
At that point, Weaver said in an interview, “I did start crying. And then I said ‘I think you should get Tyler in here, because Tyler is going to have a problem.’”
Weaver said in her statement to police that Mahaney “became increasingly upset – putting his fingers in my face, leaning over me and then forcefully grabbing my leg between the thigh and knee with his left hand. I then loudly told him to get his hands off of me, and his fingers out of my face.”
Weaver said at that point, Fontana intervened.
“Ms. Fontana then grabbed his shoulder and moved him, and took his seat,” Weaver wrote in her statement. “She apologized for him and said that he ‘just gets too passionate.’"
Weaver and Watkins both wrote in their voluntary statements that they were offered candy to calm down.
“Mr. [Mahaney] moved farther from me and I told him that it’s bad enough to deal with this, because he was intimidating me verbally and then physically. They both apologized and offered me candy to ‘make me feel better,” she wrote in her statement, adding the candy were dark chocolate, Milk Duds, Reese’s Pieces and Almond Joy.
Weaver said that after asking for Watkins several times, she called him herself, and he came within 10 minutes. By that time, Weaver and Fontana had moved to a larger conference room. Weaver and Watkins both said they wanted Mahaney to come to the conference room, but he never reappeared.
“I walk in and Laura is shaking, red eyes, she’s been crying,” Watkins said in an interview, describing his arrival at city hall. “I can see it. She’s terrified.”
Watkins and Weaver said in interviews and their statements that Watkins asked Fontana about Mahaney’s actions.
“As I sat down, Laura said to me ‘He put his hands on me,’” Watkins wrote in his statement. “I asked who and she continued, he put his hands on me and got in my face. I became upset and asked Ms. Fontana if she saw him do this. She indicated with a ‘yes.’
Watkins said in his statement to police and in an interview that he was also offered candy.
“I was offered chocolate to settle me down, I assume,” Watkins said. “I was obviously upset at this point. I was told to calm down several times and I was offered chocolate as well.”
Watkins and Weaver said they continued their discussion with Fontana about the kayaking business and then left. “The rest of the meeting was spent discussing the city’s contract with us, and that asking further questions would jeopardize our business in the city,” Weaver wrote in her statement.
After trying to contact their attorney, state Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Little River, who was in Columbia for the legislative session, the pair decided to make their statements on Thursday.
Weaver said she was too scared to go to police during the initial encounter on Tuesday.
“I would have asked for a police officer but the police officers in this city work for Mike Mahaney,” Weaver said. “I did not feel safe enough to ask for a police officer at that time. I was completely in shock.”
The incident was reported to North Myrtle Beach police Thursday morning, according to a report.
Fontana could not be reached for comment, and city spokesman Donald Graham did not respond to a request for comment.
In a Facebook post on her campaign page, Fontana denied the incident had occurred the way Watkins and Weaver described it.
“This statement is issued by me to correct current stories posted on social media about our current City Manager,” Fontana wrote. “The meeting was this past Tuesday afternoon and I was present the entire meeting. Contrary to what has been reported no one was threatened, physically intimidated or assaulted in any way.”
Watkins said Mahaney’s actions were “atrocious.”
“It’s taken a horrible emotional and mental toll on her,” Watkins said in an interview. “We are angry and more upset that Nikki Fontana denied that this happened. … This cannot happen in our town. This cannot happen to our people. Who are we if this guy does this, if we allow this?”
Weaver is a longtime North Myrtle Beach resident. She graduated from North Myrtle Beach High School in 1993 as a decorated student athlete on the school’s basketball and softball teams.
She holds a master’s in teaching from Coastal Carolina University, and two undergraduate degrees: one in recreation and leisure services management and one in English. She spent years teaching at North Myrtle Beach High School and Carolina Forest High School until she left a couple years ago to focus on taking her kayak tour business full time.
“I’m really worried that I will never get the value out of my business because of the press this will create," Weaver said. "But when bullies rise up, we have a responsibility to stand up to them. It’s what my mother taught me, and I cannot look in the mirror and know that I went against everything my mother taught.”
Weaver said she felt that Mahaney wanted to meet with her instead of Watkins because she is a woman.
“I feel he picked me because I’m an easy target and I’m known for not wanting to fight about this issue,” she said in an interview, explaining that she didn’t mind supporting the public parks she uses to launch her kayaks. “I just want to go to work and support my house, pay my mortgage, rescue dogs and enjoy my family and provide experiences for other families. I believe in the goodness of what I do for a living and I believe in the righteousness of what I’m doing right now.”