HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – Negotiations have started to put together a “termination package” for the Horry County administrator, according to an email distributed by the county council chairman.
The email from Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner, obtained by WMBF News, was sent to the other council members on Monday, hours before a special-called meeting was set to begin.
In the email, Gardner said he’d spent a great deal of time Monday on the phone with the attorney for administrator Chris Eldridge.
“She reached out to me this morning to start the negotiations for Mr. Eldridge’s termination package,” Gardner wrote in the email. “They recognize that under our form of government, the chairman and administrator must have a good working relationship for Horry County to move forward. They also recognize that the trust has been broken in that relationship.”
According to Gardner, the attorney requested the council move forward with the negotiations “in good faith as soon as we can.”
“She thinks we can have this matter resolved within two weeks. I agree. This will avoid a potential lawsuit which we all know could drag on for a year or so,” Gardner wrote.
On the agenda for Monday’s meeting is a discussion and vote on the administrator’s employment contract. Gardner stated in the email that in the event the council moved forward with a vote to not renew that contract, they will still need to address the contract’s terms at a later time.
“Some may say this is six of one and a half-dozen of the other. I say if we take this item off the agenda tonight (Monday), we might avoid additional embarrassment for the county and move quicker to an amicable resolution,” Gardner stated in the email to council.
Gardner requests the matter be taken off of Monday’s agenda in exchange for a good faith agreement to have the matter resolved within two weeks.
“In the event we do not reach an agreement, we will put the matter back on for a vote. Either way, I believe we all know, including Mr. Eldridge, that his contract will not be renewed,” the email from Gardner concluded.
“We want to be fair to the county. Fair to everyone involved," Gardner told WMBF news after the meeting.
Gardner said he has not yet set a date to meet with the administrators attorney, but thats due in part to scheduling.
“It doesn’t matter what happened to get us here. If the two of you cannot work together then the county can not do business," said County Councilman Johnny Vaught, “[Gardner] was elected by the people of Horry County to be their chairman, ok? The administrator is appointed. He’s hired. So you got a choice, which one is going to go? There’s not really a choice, is there? You have to let the administrator go because the chairman was elected.”
The council members began talking about a possible severance package for the county administrator shortly after a heated meeting included a vote to terminate the administrator’s employment.
Emails released following a WMBF News Freedom of Information Act request show that Gardner sent a note March 12 updating the rest of the governing body about a meeting he had with vice chairman Harold Worley and council members Danny Hardee and Al Allen regarding a possible severance package for Eldridge.
“We are all in agreement that this needs to happen and soon,” Gardner wrote.
On March 5, the council voted on whether to fire Eldridge after he instigated an investigation into extortion allegations against Gardner.
After nearly two hours of fiery exchange between council members and the administrator, the governing body’s vote to terminate Eldridge from his position died when it ended in a 6-6 tie.
In his March 12 email, Gardner asked for two volunteers to discuss the severance package with Eldridge.
“I have thought about this and I think it would be fair and balanced to have one member from each side of last week’s 6-6 vote, one member who voted yes and one member who voted no,” Gardner wrote.
Allen responded that he would be willing to work with Gardner.
“I would like to see a reasonable and fair package for Chris,” Allen wrote.
The emails can be read in full below:
“The form of government that we have in Horry County with the county admin and chair of county council. It’s absolutely vital that they work with each other that they trust each other," said Gardner.
The county administrator’s employment contract is one of two items on the agenda for a special-called Horry County Council meeting set for Monday night.
Last year, Eldridge asked the State Law Enforcement Division to look into possible extortion after he claimed that Gardner, who was then 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.
The State Law Enforcement Division investigated the claims and 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson cleared Gardner of the extortion allegations after reviewing SLED’s report.