Horry County chairman on explosive meeting: 'We are going to move together as one unit’
HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – The Horry County Council voted on Tuesday whether to terminate Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge from his position after an extortion investigation.
After nearly two hours of fiery exchanges between council members and Eldridge, the council made a motion to terminate Eldridge. The vote ended in a 6-6 tie, which meant the motion did not pass.
The future of Eldridge’s employment had been in question ever since a January 4 special called meeting regarding extortion allegations surrounding chairman Johnny Gardner.
Eldridge asked the State Law Enforcement Division to look into possible extortion after he claimed that Gardner, who was newly sworn-in as the Horry County Council chairman, tried to manipulate Sandy Davis, director of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation, during a lunch meeting with Luke Barefoot, an associate of Gardner’s.
SLED investigated the claims and 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson cleared Gardner of the extortion allegations after reviewing SLED’s report.
Councilman Al Allen opened the meeting with recounting the timeline of events that lead up to Eldridge calling for a SLED investigation. Allen said during a breakfast meeting with Eldridge in December, there was no mention of the situation with the MBREDC.
Many council members asked Eldridge questions during the meeting. Danny Hardee, in his exchange with Eldridge, asked if he would take a lie detector test.
“The only person, if you read this whole thing, that had a problem, is Chris Eldridge,” said Hardee.
Eldridge spoke about what stuck out to him in the audio recording that was made during the lunch meeting. WMBF News was the first to share that audio.
“Political cover and contracts and votes on council. Those were the things that got my attention from what I heard once," said Eldridge.
“So, you felt like it was an inappropriate conversation?” asked Johnny Vaught.
“Yes,” Eldridge said.
Some council members even suggested to Eldridge he should resign.
"If I was in your shoes I would talk to county councilmen and work out to resign,” said Paul Prince.
The division between council members was no secret. Dennis DiSabato and Harold Worely said they would not vote to fire him.
“Did Mr. Barefoot not say you ought to hire somebody to give you political cover to protect your budget? Was that not on that tape? That’s pay to play,” said DiSabato directly to Johnny Gardner, who told DiSabato he was out of order.
Allen brought up DiSabato’s relationship with Gardner. “I love you, we’re Christian men, but you have had a personal vendetta against this man ever since he failed to appoint you where you wanted to go,” said Allen.
DiSabato said he sat down with Gardner before the meeting and talked with him, and advised Gardner what he thought was the appropriate action going forward.
“I do not have a vendetta against Mr. Gardner,” said DiSabato, “I do not necessarily care for what he did to me that day and I do have some guarded suspicions, but I will work with Mr. Gardner just as I think Mr. Gardner as the elected leader of this county should work with his staff.”
During the heated meeting, Vaught asked Gardner if he felt like he could work with Eldridge moving forward. Gardner said that he would not work with someone that almost had him thrown in jail.
But now, Gardner will have to work with Eldridge. WMBF News asked Gardner about the future of his working relationship with Eldridge.
“Do you feel you can trust him?” WMBF News report Patrick Lloyd asked.
“Well, that’s a tough question. None of my thoughts have changed since before,” Gardner answered.
Gardner said he still feels that Eldridge shouldn’t have contacted SLED about the recording in the first place.
“There is no doubt in my mind that these were frivolous allegations,” Gardner said.
Gardner said he wasn’t happy with the fact that Eldridge brought up his concerns about the recording the night before Gardner was sworn-in as chairman.
But despite all of this, Gardner is set on moving forward positively.
“We are going to move together as one unit made up of 12 members, and we’ll get it done,” Gardner said.
Lloyd also asked Gardner about his working relationship with Horry County attorney Arrigo Carotti, who wrote a memo about the lunch. Gardner said he thinks they will be fine andhe has no ill will toward him. He said when Carotti wrote the memo months ago, he was just doing his job.
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