By Paul Gable
One day after denying Freedom of Information requests for the release of the termination agreement with former county administrator Chris Eldridge, Horry County Attorney Arrigo Carotti honored those requests.
What changed in 24 hours? Absolutely nothing!
Carotti tried to lay blame for the initial denial of release of the agreement on a claim that is was “confidential.”
This claim apparently rose from a “non-disclosure” clause that was included in the document.
The non-disclosure clause was never discussed in negotiations with the attorney representing Eldridge in the matter, according to council Chairman Johnny Gardner. Gardner said council was told it was a standard clause the county’s Human Resources department adds to this type of agreement.
But, the clause is illegal under state law. It not only violates the state Freedom of Information Act, but also violates state statutes with respect to public contracts and the expenditure of public funds. The clause also attempted to infringe on the First Amendment protections of free speech by limiting what council members could say about the agreement.
The termination agreement with Eldridge is a public contract. The severance package for Eldridge, agreed to by council, will be paid from public funds. State statutes specifically require public disclosure of such contracts and payments.
Carotti also claimed in an email to council members that he reached out to Eldridge’s attorney to see if Eldridge would agree to public disclosure of the document. Carotti claimed he received written permission from Eldridge’s attorney and released the document at 4 p.m. Thursday.
Let’s explore those statements.
Carotti claims to need approval from Eldridge’s attorney to disclose the agreement due to a ‘boilerplate’ clause in the contract that was never part of the negotiations. Rather, the clause was put into the contract illegally by the county’s HR department and then used to initially deny public access to the agreement.
Not all of the blame for this set of events can be laid on Carotti’s shoulders. Council was provided with a copy of the agreement to read in executive session. At that point, one or more council members should have objected to the clause as illegal under state law. But, none did.
Nevertheless, the county employs the county attorney to specifically keep them out of this type of illegal activity and embarrassment. Carotti failed do so.
During the budget workshop, council member Al Allen told his fellow council members it was time for council to hire an attorney specifically to represent council.
Council members Bill Howard and Johnny Vaught gave glowing reviews of what a fine job Carotti does while rejecting Allen’s suggestion.
If illegally attempting to keep a public contract secret is an example of this ‘fine job’, one wonders how much longer council is willing to allow itself to be made to look foolish by these types of action before taking the necessary step Allen suggested.
Additionally, council member Tyler Servant mentioned from the dais that he was voting against approval of the termination agreement because of the cost, approximately $300,000, to taxpayers.
What Servant forgot to mention was that he could have saved the county most of that money by voting to fire Eldridge with cause during the March 5, 2019 special meeting of council. There was significant proof that Eldridge was way out of line by calling for a SLED investigation of Gardner on totally fictional allegations created by himself and Carotti.
The council could have ridden itself of Eldridge on that date, probably for the cost of attorney fees in defending the lawsuit Eldridge would no doubt have brought had he been fired.
But the Deep Six on council blocked the Eldridge firing on that date, only to get rid of him with a payoff one month later. The county’s citizens need protection from such self-proclaimed ‘watchdogs over taxpayer dollars.’
Eldridge is gone with a payoff. Good riddance!
It is now time for the Deep Six to keep the best interests of the county at the top of their consideration instead of their own petty little grievances or promises to special interests.
The I-73 Financial Participation Agreement comes to mind.