After a rocky start, the new Horry County Council seems to be operating in a more efficient — and less dramatic — manner.
The cloud of an extortion investigation involving new chairman Johnny Gardner still hovers over the council, but a State Law Enforcement Division investigation should soon provide some clarity to that situation.
We hope the council has learned to avoid the childish antics that plagued its early weeks: a fruitless meeting filled with bickering and a disagreement over email about seating arrangements. At one point, a councilman told his peers to spit out their pacifiers. He accused them of objecting to council chairman Johnny Gardner, who replaced Mark Lazarus after a close primary last year.
Fortunately for county residents, recent meetings have shown greater maturity on the part of the councilmen, a trend that needs to continue to avoid further embarrassment.
The next major decision the council will face will arrive when SLED releases its findings about the Gardner case.
On Dec. 20, just hours before Gardner was sworn in, a Columbia-based political blog published a story based on information contained in a confidential memo written by county attorney Arrigo Carotti.
Headlined “Horry County Government Rocked By Recording of Alleged Extortion Attempt,” the story described a Nov. 30 lunch meeting between Gardner, his business partner Luke Barefoot and two officials with the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp. (EDC), the county’s industry recruitment agency.
During the meeting, Barefoot threatened to have Grand Strand Daily blogger Paul Gable write a disparaging story about Davis’ lack of education unless the EDC hired Gardner’s political consultant Donald Smith for the organization’s public relations work, according to the memo.
Gardner and Davis have both said there was never an extortion attempt, but administrator Chris Eldridge asked SLED to investigate the matter.
That led to a special council meeting to discuss Eldridge’s job status and a failed plan by some council members to suspend the administrator. During the meeting where the administrator’s job was supposed to be discussed, council members sparred over whether to go behind closed doors. Some wanted to talk about Eldridge’s job while others sought to get clarity on the SLED investigation.
The council ultimately couldn’t get enough votes to enter executive session and that’s a good thing. They don’t need to deal with this situation in secret.
Once the SLED report is released, the council will likely revisit the matter and we encourage them to do so publicly.
Any discussions about the SLED investigation and Eldridge’s job should be held in open session to make the process as transparent as possible.
Although the council could legally discuss Eldridge’s position behind closed doors — state law makes an exception for discussions about employee discipline or termination — the administrator has asked that any talks about his job be held in open session and we agree they should be.
Secrecy breeds suspicion and there is already enough speculation and rumor circling this council.
County officials would best serve their constituents by explaining what happened and what their next steps will be.
Talking among themselves and filling the public in later is unacceptable.