HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – A heated special-called Horry County Council meeting ended Friday with no action taken, but records indicate some on the governing body were ready to take action against the county administrator.
According to records obtained by WMBF News partner My Horry News, some county council members had planned to vote to suspend administrator Chris Eldridge with pay and install Horry County Emergency Management Director Randy Webster as interim administrator.
Eldridge’s proposed suspension would have continued until the conclusion of an investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division, according to My Horry News.
Friday’s meeting agenda showed council would go into executive session to discuss employee matters. It was called after SLED started an investigation into extortion allegations at the request of Eldridge.
He claims new Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner and another man tried to manipulate the director of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation.
County attorney Arrigo Carotti said the purpose of the executive session was for the council to receive legal advice from him where it related to a pending, threatened or potential claim, or other matters covered by the attorney-client privilege. It would not involve any discussion regarding Eldridge or his employment, he added.
Councilman Johnny Vaught made a motion to change the purpose of the executive session, saying he wanted to receive information about the investigation and to have the record set straight.
That caused Councilman Harold Worley to exclaim he wouldn’t go into executive session to discuss the SLED investigation, stating it wouldn’t be proper to talk about it until it’s finished.
Worley then had some blunt words regarding the allegations.
“It saddens me that anybody or any person, whether they’re elected or not elected, would do anything to embarrass this council. It’s appalling,” he said.
Worley then addressed Eldridge and Carotti, saying if the SLED investigation shows that they tried to “set this man up (Gardner),” he would vote to fire them.
“You won’t have to, sir. I’ll quit,” Carotti responded. “If I lose the trust of my client, I’ll quit. You don’t have to play any politics when it comes to me. I’m an attorney. I’ll quit.”
Councilman Al Allen said the governing body couldn’t have “this kind of activity being conducted by so-called professionals,” and added the council is given authority under home rule to act.
“We have a county administrator that has made allegations against a new incoming chairman and against prominent citizens in this county with no factual evidence whatsoever, and this council’s obligated,” Allen said. “The people are tired of the good ol’ boy system. They want to see something done.”
The discussion then turned to addressing the matter out in the open, instead of in executive session. That prompted Worley to point to South Carolina statute, which states the council must provide a written statement to the county administrator if they are seeking to remove him.
Within five days of that statement being delivered, the administrator can then request a public hearing.
Another question that came up during the debate was whether Carotti would be representing Eldridge or the county during executive session.
Carotti said as the county’s attorney, his client is the administrator and, at any given point, seven or more members of county council, as well any other individual or component of county government, as long as their interests are in line with the core component of the administrator and the majority of council.
He added he would represent Eldridge in his official capacity.
“As you’ll see seated behind him, he (Eldridge) has an attorney representing him in his personal capacity, as do I,” Carotti said.
Ultimately, the vote to go into executive session failed on a 10-2 vote. The council then voted to adjourn.
At the end of Friday’s meeting, Eldridge handed out copies of a letter he wanted to give to council during the proceedings. In that letter, he requested that any conversations concerning his employment be held in open session.
“I will not have my integrity attacked without means of defense in public,” Eldridge wrote. “I should add that this effort appears to have been initiated by some who are the subjects of what is being investigated.”
The county administrator also alluded to “private discussions” between some council members about placing him under some form of suspension.
“I have done nothing wrong to be punished in such a way,” Eldridge stated in the letter. “Doing so damages my career and makes me a target of retaliation.”