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Horry County Government Drama Headed Behind Closed Doors

Johnny Gardner’s first meeting as county council chairman will be behind closed doors …

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In a move that inspires little in the way of public confidence, new Horry County, South Carolina council chairman Johnny Gardner – the self-proclaimed “people’s candidate” – is taking his first official county council meeting behind closed doors.

Viva transparency, right?

Gardner is in the midst of a major controversy over alleged extortion threats involving his backers and a crony capitalist economic development group.  As the scandal surrounding Gardner has escalated, he has called for a special session of county council.  The agenda for this meeting – scheduled for 2:00 p.m. EST on Friday – contained but one item: “Executive Session: Discussion of employment, appointment, compensation, promotion, demotion, discipline, or release of an employee.”

Executive session means the business that follows on the agenda will be discussed by council members outside of the public view.

“The only public actions are the invocation and pledge of allegiance,” noted Audrey Hudson of the Myrtle Beach Post.  “All other business will be conducted behind closed doors.”

Well, almost all other business.  Assuming a decision is reached regarding the personnel matters in question, any binding votes taken by the council must be cast in the light of day.

This news outlet objects to executive session on principle.  Any discussion related to the “employment, appointment, compensation, promotion, demotion, discipline, or release” of a taxpayer-funded official is by definition the people’s business – meaning it should be conducted in the light of day.

That would seem to be especially true under the circumstances …

What employee(s) are the focus of the special executive session meeting?  It is widely believed Gardner will make a push behind closed doors to fire Horry County administrator Chris Eldridge or county attorney Arrigo Carotti – or perhaps both employees.

Why?  Eldridge and Carotti are the driving forces behind a recently launched S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) investigation into the extortion allegations, which were exclusively reported by this news outlet before Christmas.

Specifically, Carotti submitted a five-page memo to his superiors last month detailing an alleged plot involving Luke Barefoot – Gardner’s aide-de-camp.  According to the memo, Barefoot and Gardner met a month ago with Sandy Davis, the new president and chief executive officer of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation (MBREDC).  This organization is a crony capitalist association which receives $1.1 million annually from county taxpayers to promote job growth in the region.

At this meeting – which one of Davis’ associates recorded – Barefoot allegedly told Davis (in Gardner’s presence) that she could “head off” negative media coverage about herself and her organization by paying $40,000 to the incoming chairman’s political consultant, Conway, S.C.-based advisor Donald Smith.  It was further suggested, according to the memo, that the payment could be disguised in such a way as to give her “political cover.”

Barefoot allegedly identified Paul Gable – editor of Grand Strand Daily – as the media figure who was contemplating negative coverage of Davis and the MBREDC.

Eldridge requested the SLED investigation after he and two other council members listened to the audio recording of the meeting involving Barefoot, Gardner and the MBREDC executives.

(Click to view)

(Via: Provided)

Our view?  As we noted in our previous coverage of this saga, this news outlet has not editorialized on the allegations involving Gardner (above) and his associates – except to say that we believe a SLED investigation is “entirely appropriate under the circumstances.”  If the narrative contained in the Carotti memo is confirmed by the audio recording, then we believe Gardner and his allies would have some serious explaining to do – although it remains to be seen whether anything criminal or unethical transpired in connection with either the memo or the recording.

Or whether Gardner simply displayed what would fall into the category of atrocious judgment …

Having said that, we are troubled by Gardner’s response to this situation.  While his hastily convened “special session” will fall (barely) within the letter of the Palmetto State’s exceedingly lax open meetings law, it sends a terrible message to Horry County citizens.  Gardner and his associates may be as pure as the driven snow when it comes to the allegations swirling around them, but Friday’s secret meeting reeks of guilt and obstructionism – especially if a move is made behind closed doors to terminate the employees who prompted/ requested the SLED probe.

Right or wrong, that would look terrible.

Whatever happened in this case, Gardner and his fellow council members should at least wait until the conclusion of the SLED probe to take any actions against the administrator who referred the matter for investigation – or the attorney who prepared the report at the heart of the inquiry.

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