Atlantic Beach: A little town with big problems

ATLANTIC BEACH, SC (WMBF) Atlantic Beach Town Leadership is questioned by some after a seemingly botched election and pending lawsuits.

It's a town of roughly 400 people, but for the past several months the small town of Atlantic Beach has consumed a large amount of the headlines, including a suspended mayor, allegations of voter fraud, and botched elections. Almost two weeks ago, another election ended with what appears to be similar results; challenges, finger pointing and calls for another election.

"I'm sorry, the mayor is not in, she keeps her own hours," said a woman at Atlantic Beach Town Hall, as WMBF News sent an employee looking to speak with the then Mayor Retha Pierce. We were told to call back after 2pm, but the town is closed after 2pm. We called repeatedly and never could reach Mayor Retha Pierce or other administrators.

"Are you surprised that we had problems getting a hold of Retha or administrators?" Asked WMBF News Anchor Michael Maely to eight year council member Jake Evans.

"No, I'm not surprised at all, this new administration is only having the town open three days a week for five hours and that's absurd," said Evans.

According to preliminary vote results, Evans defeated Pierce in the 2011 mayoral race, with former council members Charlene Taylor and Josephine Isom also earning the majority vote, to return to council.  But a host of protests over voter identification and other complaints resulted in a decision to hold another election in 6 months.

"They had the information to prove that they lived there in Atlantic Beach and their votes were tossed aside, yeah it's very frustrating to them and to me as well," said Evans.

Even without the votes in question, Evans had enough to win, but says he knows other voters, even town leaders, don't actually live where they are registered. "It really puts a bad taste in people's mouth when the leader, a town official does that," claims Evans.

Mayor Pierce has at least one address listed in Tabor City, though when WMBF News crews went there, the house appeared to be unoccupied.  As for Evans' address in Atlantic Beach, he says it hasn't changed in over four decades.

"I live in the same apartment that I've been living in for 45 years or better," he said.

Whether Evans protests the decision to hold a new election, or wins the new election as he feels he can, he says he has concerns about actions of incumbent council members Carolyn Cole and Windy Price who the Supreme Court reinstated to council in July after a previous election challenge.

"They fire the police chief, the entire police staff. I did not know that was gonna happen," claims Evans. "The very first meeting they had when they came back, I was not present, that's the only meeting that I missed, and of course that first meeting that they, pretty much fired everybody," said Evans. WMBF News confirmed that the town currently employees a new police force of at least four people. Meanwhile, Evans said he has concerns about other council members.

"Between the two of them, Caroline Cole and Windy Price, they have 12 lawsuits against the town, for millions of dollars, so does the election commissioner they assigned," he explains.

In a list of the lawsuits, Evans says people have filed billions of dollars in claims against Atlantic Beach since 2006. Among those people are Cole, Price and election chairperson Nicole Kenion.

Evans says he's hoping the proper legal authorities are watching what's happening in Atlantic Beach.  He says the town's budget is roughly a million dollars a year.  But since Cole and Price came back this summer, Evans says he has serious doubts.

"These last three months or so, I have no report of what was spent, what was taken in, no checks and balances what so ever. If elected, I'll call for an independent audit," said Evans.

Accessibility will also be a priority for Evans. "As Mayor, if you call town hall, they're going to be able to give you a number or something where I can be reached," he said.  "Nobody's wanting to invest any money into a town where the government officials are the way they are right now."

Evans says he will run again in the new election.

Mayor Retha Pierce returned WMBF News' phone call on Monday and said it was the first time she received the message of from Nov. 3. No one ever returned the calls and visit our producer made last month.

And despite repeated attempts to reach the other Town Council members and election officials, WMBF News has yet to hear back from them and will continue to follow up on the Freedom of Information request. Mayor Pierce, while unavailable at the time of this story, said she will set up a time to answer questions.

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