ATLANTIC BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Arguments, lawsuits, debts, all problems that continue to build in Atlantic Beach. It's a town that has been in chaos for years.
WMBF News Anchor Michael Maely investigated why the controversy cannot be resolved and why a new mayor has yet to make an impact.
Atlantic Beach may be a tiny town, but it's dysfunction is not.
Flaring tempers and interruptions during a recent town council meeting stemmed from who's sitting on this council.
Atlantic Beach Council member Carolyn Cole said, "I know you don't wanna hear it, but I'm gonna say this. After every time you call Ms. Isom, a private citizen is being called to vote on the issues at the table."
Atlantic Beach Mayor Jake Evans responded, "As long as I sit here, I'm gonna recognize Josephine as a legitimate council person. I'm gonna recognize her vote, so if you're gonna have a problem with that, that's gonna be your problem."
This debate is just one of many that are ongoing. And it is hindering any progress.
To find out why, let's take a look at the town's debt. A little digging by Michael Maely discovered the money problems in this small town are big.
CPA Reginald McConnell told the town council in October that he had trouble gathering the town's information since much of the staff has changed since 2007.
Meanwhile the town's current debt, according to Town Manager William Booker, is roughly $787,000.
To put that into perspective, we tracked down South Carolina's Treasurer Curtis Loftis.
Michael Maely asked, "How is that money made up? Can a town say, 'we can't pay our bills,' sorry?"
"The taxpayers and other parts of the state have to make the difference, and that's not right. Atlantic Beach should pay its bills, and everybody else needs to pay their own bills. So it costs us all and there's additional liability problems out there. Does the city have insurance? Does the city doing other things that might create other problems? We need to address that and that has to be addressed, rightfully so, in the general assembly," Curtis Loftis stated.
Mayor Evans, Town Manager William Booker and Councilwoman Carolyn Cole answered some of our questions by phone and email, but we had more questions, so we went to their Town Council Meeting. It was canceled, so we set out in search of answers.
No one answered the door at the apartment Carolyn Cole and Councilwoman Price say they share. We reached Cole by phone, and she agreed to sit down with us and talk about the town's finances.
"Do you have a responsibility as a council member to see why they don't add up?" Michael challenged.
"We do have a responsibility as council members," Cole admitted.
Some of that debt comes from lawsuits and settlements with Cole, and that has caught the attention of Mayor Jake Evans. Ten counts of ethics charges against Cole are scheduled for a hearing before the State Ethics Commission.
Evans filed them alleging that Cole used her office for gain when she signed 10 checks to herself for payment of a civil award of judgement against the Town of Atlantic Beach.
"What would you say to somebody who says, 'why was she signing her own checks from the town of Atlantic Beach?'" Michael asked.
Councilwoman Cole debated, "The only thing I'd say about that, is the check signing ordinance policy. We had two people on check signing authority - the town manager and one councilperson. Any of the checks that were put before me, whether they had my name or anyone else on it, we just simply signed and moved on.
Evans said the checks totaled almost $23,000 between July 2011 and June 2012. He claimed he had no idea the money was leaving the town's accounts as a councilman because the previous staff denied him access.
"That's not true. Mr. Blanton certainly was not withholding any information. If anybody recalls, when we would go to town council meetings before, we couldn't get a report. Ms. Pierce, if you go back in the minutes, you hear her congratulate Blanton for giving us regular financial statements."
Cole said she was within her rights to pursue the settlement money, which she said was in part for a breach of contract with the town, as well as an Atlantic Beach loan repayment and attorneys fees. In total she said that settlement was in the $400,000 range, but assured that she kept none of it.
"For people who say that's hard to believe, that she wouldn't keep even one penny of the $400,000 you'd say no?" Michael cross-examined.
"It is, I owed the money - the town owed what it owned - I owed what I owed. There's no such thing as mine or there's this was other people's money," Ms. Cole declared.
But possibly bigger than the debate over debt is the road block the council has faced since Josephine Isom took office in July: Cole and Windy Price don't recognize her as sitting on the council at all.
"What you're doing is to force us into participate in an illegal government. We're saying to you, if you want to correct this there's a way to do it," Cole fumed. "All you have to do is say 'Look Isom, stand down for this moment. Let's have the courts take a look at this and tell us what we need to do.'"
The Isom debate happened after a series of election protests. Mayor Evans said it was unclear whether Isom was allowed to take her seat while the Supreme Court debated the mayoral seat; Cole disagrees.
"That's not true, because the town attorney made sure that we all understand that if your seat wasn't protested, you take your seat and we've been through enough of these protests to be sure what we had to do while the Supreme Court deliberated," Cole defended.
Regardless, the council voted Josephine Isom out, 3 to 1 for not taking her seat. Jake, the lone opposition, said Isom couldn't be voted out since she'd not been sworn in at that point.
The embattled Municipal Election Commission urged the council to set an election date to fill Isom's seat. Disagreeing, the mayor said he fired the MEC.
"Unfortunately for our mayor, that's not the way these things are decided, you don't fire your Municipal Election Commission in retaliation," Cole alleged. "For anything, you would have conducted a public hearing on the removal of these folks if that's what you truly felt that they had done something wrong."
Evans says Isom eventually took her seat in July when he took his seat as mayor. Carolyn Cole and Windy Price dispute Isom's position, usually at every meeting.
Another debate concerns the next election scheduled for Nov. 12.
But Cole says the town's elections have always been on the first Tuesday of November and said a letter from the Election Commission stated she and Price have already won since they were the only two who filed for a Nov. 5 election.
That election was by the Municipal Election Commission recognized by Price and Cole, the same one Evans said he fired.
Carolyn Cole made headlines in September when she spoke to the Horry County Council about why the town should become either an unincorporated community in Horry County or consolidate with North Myrtle Beach.
"We continually demonstrate in Atlantic Beach that we're not handling our fiscal matters the way we should," Cole attested.
And state treasurer Curtis Loftis agreed. "The sad thing here, some of these towns ought not be towns. They need to be incorporated into larger towns or counties or just go away as an entity. They can't afford to be in business."
But Mayor Evans doesn't think consolidation is the answer, and despite all the likely upcoming legal disputes of council members and debt, the mayor ended a recent council meeting with optimism.
"I've got the support of Atlantic Beach, and we're one big happy family here," he boasted.
Jake Evans twice told us he would meet for an on-camera interview, but then canceled, saying some of those who elected him didn't want him getting into an on-camera debate with Carolyn Cole.
Cole faces a hearing in January on those ethics charges. As for the election, she said the courts will need to sort this out.
The State Treasurer's Office said the town owes South Carolina agencies roughly $50,000.
Because Atlantic Beach hasn't submitted an audit since 2006, the treasurer's office said it will withhold any annual state funds to Atlantic Beach. That amounted to almost $10,000 for fiscal year 2013; that money won't be coming until the audits are caught up, and catching up may be a daunting task.
Meanwhile, Mayor Evans said the current MEC honors the Nov. 12 election.
Former Mayor Retha Pierce, Jake's brother Len earl Evans and Kenneth McLaurin are seeking seats.
If you're on a mobile device, click here - http://bit.ly/1cT3sl4 - to view this story on your desktop and review the court documents concerning the many ongoing debates in Atlantic Beach.