HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WPDE) — Horry County Council broke the law Tuesday afternoon in talking about and voting on the county administrator's job, according to attorney Jay Bender, who specializes in the Freedom of Information Act.
At the specially-called meeting, the agenda was set for "Discussion of the County Administrator’s role in the SLED investigation."
Councilman Al Allen made a motion to amend the agenda to include recent and previous developments pertaining to actions by the county administrator and the current contractual status.
Here is the clip from the meeting:
However, after discussions, the motion to amend the agenda failed in a 6-to-6 vote.
Bender said beyond that point, there should have not been any discussion except for the county administrator’s role in the SLED investigation.
"If there was a published agenda for the meeting and it did not include discussion of the administrator’s contract, that contract could not have been discussed lawfully at the meeting," he said. "The fact that there was a motion to amend the agenda to add that item and that motion failed, reinforces the notion that the public had no legitimate notice that the administrator's contract was to be discussed and perhaps acted upon."
Bender said the reason the public is entitled to notice of meetings is so they can attend a meeting and possibly contact their council member to give their opinion.
"To do it without notice deprives the public of an opportunity to participate-- and that’s contrary to the whole notion of democracy," he said.
Bender said the council's actions were illegal.
"The South Carolina Freedom of Information Act specifies what must be done to bring an item up for discussion. And if a body acts inconsistently with those requirements, that’s illegal. That’s a violation of the law," he said.
He added that if the vote to terminate County Administrator Chris Eldridge had passed, Eldridge would have a claim against the county for its illegal action in considering his employment and terminating him.
Bender added that in addition to the illegal conversation, the council also did not vote on a motion made by Councilman Paul Prince to discuss the administrator's contract in five days. Price's motion was seconded.
An amendment to that motion was made by Councilman Dennis Disabato, but he later withdrew his motion.
At that time, Councilman Al Allen moved on to the vote to terminate Eldridge immediately.
That motion failed in a 6-to-6 vote, but Bender said the vote never should have happened because they didn't handle Prince's motion first.
You can watch that motion and subsequent conversation below:
Calls to each council member, the county administrator, the county attorney and to the county's spokespeople for comment. Some have not yet been returned.
Council chairman Johnny Gardner said, "thank you for pointing it out and I will discuss it with our county attorney and the other council members."
Councilman Paul Prince said he'd be happy to take the vote again.
"I was there to receive questions and as much information that I could about the investigation. I listened through the whole thing," he said. "I wasn’t sure if there was going to be any voting yesterday, so if it has been done illegally, we can do it over again. "
He added that he is going to talk with the chairman and the other council members to see what is the next step and that he is sorry to the public for how things have transpired.
"I’m sorry this has happened in the last two months. I have never had this happen in my 10 terms," he said. "All the administrators who have left in the past have had good rapport when they left. I am disappointed in the way things have turned out up to this point and I don’t know how to fix it. I’m trying to figure out the best I can so we can move forward with county business."
Prince said it is possible that the council look at a new way of government where there are no districts and everyone works together for the county as a whole.
Councilman Danny Hardee said "we have our attorney there and he is our legal counsel. If he stood up yesterday, and said this was illegal, I would have stopped."
Councilman Orton Bellamy said he would call the county attorney to review the situation.
Councilman Gary Loftus said applying Robert's Rules of Order leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
"Did council stray from the agenda in moments of passion, probably. Is that illegal, probably not," he said. "If they are using something to make a point is that illegal? That’s a discussion for our lawyer."