Investigation fallout: Gardner must put politics aside and lead county council
Opinion by Audrey Hudson, editor
There’s no denying Johnny Gardner’s term as county council chairman got off to a rocky start at the beginning of the year.
The question now is, can Gardner rise above what has quickly become a nasty political sideshow and lead the council?
We think he will, and urge him to move forward quickly to avoid sounding like President Obama, blaming every mishap on his predecessor’s administration.
It’s 2019, Mark Lazarus is no longer county chairman.
The SLED investigation is over, Gardner will not face charges.
Gardner needs to stop pointing fingers elsewhere to avoid discussing the heart of the matter — an improper conversation involving himself, his campaign aide and county employees.
Councilman Dennis DiSabato called the conversation a “pay to play” proposal, the recording of the entire conversation is linked here.
But DiSabato also says many other issues demand the council’s attention, and we would point out that infrastructure, flood recovery, and future growth should top that list.
Gardner should heed this advice, and get down to business.
And this time, he should conduct government business without the involvement of campaign advisors or become distracted by political activists.
It was Gardner’s supporters who launched the harsh social media campaign accusing a council member of having a vendetta against the new chairman, and rallied support to fire the county administrator.
Those same supporters vow retaliation against the six council members who voted against the firing, and pledge to field candidates to challenge those councilmen in the 2020 election.
Meanwhile, Gardner himself teeters dangerously on the edge of harboring a grudge, and using his self-proclaimed inability to work with the county administrator as a crutch for his failure to move forward with the people’s business.
Should the council vote to fire the county administrator?
Gardner called the special council meeting last week, the lone agenda item was to discuss administrator Chris Eldridge’s role in the SLED investigation.
Eldridge says he reported to investigators what he believed was an “unethical or possibly illegal” conversation. (See below for relevant background)
But here’s where things turned sideways, and some contend, the council did break the law when they voted against amending the agenda to discuss Eldridge’s contract, yet took the vote anyway to fire him.
That the vote to fire Eldridge failed is good news for the taxpayers, because we’re the ones who would be funding what was certain to be a lawsuit filed by Eldridge against the council if the vote had prevailed.
By the way, Eldridge’s contract was scheduled for renewal next month.
Gardner made it clear this was personal for him, and yet he failed to recuse himself from the debate, and more importantly, the vote to fire Eldridge.
Instead, Gardner recounted what is undeniably a heartfelt story how the pending SLED investigation ruined his swearing-in ceremony, his grandchild asking if he would go to jail for the conversation.
Gardner told Eldridge point-blank he would not work with him.
And, Gardner’s words were cheered on by his political supporters attending the council meeting.
The same supporters who had 24-hours notice ahead of regular public notification of the special meeting, and used that time to rally opposition on social media to demand Eldridge be fired.
The resulting meeting was a media circus, with some elected officials grandstanding for angry county employees, and hecklers behaving like they were attending a sporting event.
This is not what the voters elected Gardner to do, or how we want public meetings conducted.
The lesson here is for the chairman to keep his campaign separate from his governmental duties, put this episode behind him, and lead as the voters elected him to do.
Eldridge and the specter of Lazarus cannot suffice as a punching bag throughout Gardner’s entire four-year term.
The people of Horry County elected Gardner to be the chairman and a leader who can keep the council united, and that’s what we would again urge him to do.
Meanwhile, the council must do their job and decide whether to renew Eldridge’s contract when it expires next month, without subjecting taxpayers to years of lawsuits.
We would suggest Gardner recuse himself from that vote.
Charles Perry of My Horry News obtained the recording and linked the complete audio with his story.
The meeting was held in December at a Conway restaurant and included Gardner, Luke Barefoot who worked on Gardner’s campaign, Sandy Davis, president of the Myrtle Beach Regional Development Corporation, and Sherri Steele, the corporation’s director of investor relations.
WMBF has the relevant portion of the audio recording, and provided a transcript of the meeting linked here.