By Paul Gable
The current campaign for the Republican nomination for Chairman of Horry County Council is a contest to decide whether the citizens of Horry County will have their voices heard for the next four years or whether the tourism and development cabal will call the shots over that period.
One only has to look at campaign disclosure reports of the candidates to see the money that has been lavished on the cabal ‘A team’ candidate Mark Lazarus and the cabal ‘B team’ candidate Johnny Vaught in an effort to unseat current Chairman Johnny Gardner.
In a nearly constant stream of mailers and television and radio ads, Lazarus has attempted to rewrite the history of the 2013-2018 period he served as chairman of county council as well as his “leadership” abilities.
The alternate reality is that Lazarus has a proven record of investing in road and infrastructure improvements, supporting police and fire first responders and recruiting industry to diversify the economy.
The $600 million in roads and infrastructure stated on the Lazarus campaign literature actually refers to the Ride III projects. Ride projects are identified by an independent commission, approved by an up or down vote of county council with no amendments allowed and submitted to the voters in a referendum for approval and funding by a one-cent local option sales tax. The chairman and county council in toto have virtually nothing to do with Ride projects decisions or approval.
Lazarus’ alleged support for public safety is virtually non-existent. There is a reason that the local branches of the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Fire Fighters endorsed the candidacy of Gardner over Lazarus in 2018 and have again endorsed Gardner in the current 2022 campaign.
The historical truth is that there was near mutiny by the two groups over their treatment by Lazarus and his right-hand man, former administrator Chris Eldridge, which culminated in Lazarus referring to county first responders as “Thugs” during the 2018 campaign. How quickly Lazarus forgets.
As for the recruitment of industry, one only has to look around the county to see the new factories and corporate headquarters that sprouted during 2013-2018 period. Don’t see any? That’s right, there aren’t any!
Two historical events stand out in demonstrating the Lazarus “leadership” style.
In the final five weeks of 2018, Lazarus managed to push through the approval of a contract with SCDOT that would have committed the county to spend up to $40 million per year of county hospitality revenue for construction of Interstate 73, the number one project of the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce and its associated cabal. Serving the cabal to the bitter end.
That vote resulted in the cities suing the county over hospitality fee revenue. Lazarus likes to speak about the lawsuits between the cities and the county after he left office, but he created the conditions, while in office, that resulted in the complaints being filed soon after he left.
In the final days of 2018, Lazarus, Eldridge and county attorney Arrigo Carotti joined in a scheme designed to either keep Gardner from taking office or, at the very least, weaken Gardner’s influence with other council members.
Carotti authored a five-page “memorandum” alleging an attempt by Gardner and associates to extort money from the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation. A string of emails emerged highlighting back and forth discussions among Lazarus, Eldridge and Carotti.
The memorandum was sent to incumbent county council members and leaked to a Columbia media outlet within 12 hours giving Eldridge the excuse to send the memorandum to SLED.
Within two days, the head of the MBREDC, Sandy Davis, called the Carotti memorandum “fiction” denying any such extortion attempt had taken place and a SLED investigation found no evidence supporting any of the memo’s allegations of wrongdoing.
At the time the memo was first leaked I wrote, “Quite frankly, the entire exercise seems to be an attempt to smear Johnny Gardner on the day he will participate in a swearing in ceremony as the new chairman of county council. It appears to be an attempt to turn those who will be returning to council against Gardner before he ever takes office.”
The poisoned atmosphere on council emerged, allowing the emergence of what I call the Gang of Five, council members Vaught, Dennis DiSabato, Cam Crawford, Bill Howard and Gary Loftus, who can be counted on to side with cabal interests whenever necessary. This group has tried several times to pass legislation to again fund I-73 construction with county revenue, voted to reduce impact fee revenue, while voting to approve the largest property tax increase in county history. Kind of a ‘bow to the cabal’s interests regardless of the impact on county taxpayers’ mentality.
Vaught in his campaign mailers says county council is a circus. If council meetings are a circus, then Vaught is the top clown always racing to be in front of television cameras or pontificating during council discussions with nothing of substance to say.
Vaught has consistently attempted to pass legislation funding I-73 with county revenue despite the fact that 85% of voters polled in his council district oppose using county revenue for I-73.
Vaught served as a Lazarus surrogate during the 2018 county chairman campaign, attending events to promote the Lazarus candidacy.
It is no surprise the cabal has chosen to provide funds to loyal soldier Vaught in the hope he will draw some votes away from Gardner thereby helping Lazarus to be elected.
Gardner, during his first term in office, honored his campaign pledge of “Public Safety, Priority One, Day One”, by funding pay increases for first responders and the hiring of new police and fire officers to diminish the overtime burden which had been typical before his chairmanship.
Gardner advanced the interests of the citizens by successfully leading council to cancel the SCDOT I-73 funding contract before county revenue changed hands; impose impact fees, albeit at a low initial rate; pass legislation to mitigate the effects of flooding in the county and pass legislation to lower residential density allowed in CFA zoned parcels, most of which are located along Hwy 90, Hwy 905 and Hwy 319.
Despite altered history and false campaign rhetoric by both Lazarus and Vaught, they are the candidates of the cabal.
Gardner’s history demonstrates he is the ‘people’s chairman.’
The differences between the candidates are stark and the stakes are high.
Will council work in the interests of the people or in the interests of the cabal over the next four years?