By Paul Gable
Throughout his campaign for election last year, Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner pledged “Public Safety Priority One, Day One.”
By the time Gardner decided to run for chairman last March, county employees in general and public safety personnel in particular were suffering under low pay and demanding working conditions due to understaffing.
These conditions had been allowed to go on under the administration of former chairman Mark Lazarus and county administrator Chris Eldridge. The cry was always that there wasn’t enough money to hire more people or give current employees much in the way of raises.
Recognizing the particular frustrations of public safety employees, the first responders that are most needed when problems arise, Gardner coined his campaign phrase, not as something to say to get elected, but rather as something to do after he was elected.
Now, less than two months into his term of office, it appears that a majority of council members have bought into that philosophy.
Council members Harold Worley and Al Allen, two of the more senior members of council, have long advocated for better pay and increased staffing for public safety, but they operated as voices in the wilderness as Lazarus, Eldridge and other senior county staff consistently cried ‘no money, no money.’
Current Public Safety Committee Chairman Danny Hardee joined the ‘wilderness chorus’ when he was elected to council two years ago, but it was still only three council members with the remaining nine basically buying into staff propaganda.
However, the situation appeared to change at the regular meeting of council earlier this week when council members Cam Crawford, Dennis DiSabato, Tyler Servant and newly elected Orton Bellamy voiced support for a new study on pay and staffing for public safety personnel.
These are heartening additions as there now is a possibility of at least eight votes supporting proper pay and staffing for public safety.
Maybe a majority of council members are coming to the realization that they are elected to set policy and staff is hired to find the ways and means to carry out the policies set by council. It is the job of Eldridge and his senior staff cohorts to find ways to achieve the priorities set by council not to take major roles in the debate with excuses of why things can’t be done.
A little over four years ago, Eldridge fired then Public Safety Director Paul Whitten. At the time Eldridge said he could handle the duties of that position along with administrator and he received a pretty hefty pay raise from council as a result. A couple years down the line, Eldridge hired a new public safety director but kept the raise. Nary a word was heard from council members.
Eldridge and Lazarus pretty much ran the county the way they wanted over the last four or so years with little regard for any other than their particular priorities – read here things like I-73 funding and the county’s purchase of swamp land. Problems with pay and working conditions of public safety and county employees in general, roads and other infrastructure, storm water problems and managed development were ignored.
Hopefully a majority of council has now come to the realization that approach to governing hasn’t worked too well and that they should have a say in how priorities are established for the county and its citizens.
After all, that’s why they were elected in the first place.