By Paul Gable
The exchange at Tuesday night’s council meeting between council member Danny Hardee, Fire Chief Joseph Tanner and Deputy Chief Jack Walker highlighted some of the problems that must be fixed in the inner workings of Horry County Government.
Speaking as a point of personal privilege, Hardee talked directly to the top two fire department officials about morale and other personnel issues within the department.
As Chairman of the county’s Public Safety Committee, Hardee was trying to do the right thing, but he did it the wrong way.
Under state law governing the county’s council/administrator form of government, Hardee should have been addressing administrator Steve Gosnell, not the heads of a county department. The following extract from Title IV of state law applies:
“SECTION 4‑9‑660. Authority of council and its members over county officers and employees.
Except for the purposes of inquiries and investigations, the council shall deal with county officers and employees who are subject to the direction and supervision of the county administrator solely through the administrator, and neither the council nor its members shall give orders or instructions to any such officers or employees.”
Hardee was not speaking to the two fire officers as part of any formal inquiry or investigation. According to his own statement, Hardee was speaking from notes he took from informal meetings he has held with fire department personnel in various fire stations throughout the county.
There was a breakdown of protocol at several levels as Hardee spoke. Council Chairman Johnny Gardner should have gaveled down Hardee for being out of order. He did not.
Administrator Gosnell should have told Hardee such a conversation should be held between the administrator and council member, but not during a regular meeting of council as it involved employees who work for the administrator, not council. He did not.
County Attorney Arrigo Carotti should have told Hardee the conversation was not proper under state law and that such remarks should be addressed to the administrator during a meeting between the administrator and council member, otherwise legal issues could arise. He did not.
It took council member Harold Worley to correctly point out that such conversations should be held with Gosnell and that council members should not be eliciting direct comments from county employees under the county’s form of government.
“You’re opening yourselves up for bad things to happen by going directly to the employees,” Worley said.
There is no doubt there are many issues with morale and retention of personnel within the county fire/rescue department. Such problems became very obvious during last year’s primary election for council chairman when they were a contributing factor to former chairman Mark Lazarus being defeated.
There is no problem with council members being approached by county employees, listening to those employees concerns about problems within the department and discussing those concerns with Gosnell, but council members cannot initiate such contact.
There is no doubt Hardee is trying to do the right thing for county employees, but there are issues of protocol involved in how this should be accomplished, which must be observed.
There is no doubt many issues about the internal workings of county government were hidden from council members or ignored by them during the reign of former administrator Chris Eldridge.
Council member Dennis DiSabato joined Hardee in making comments about the conduct of certain county departments. DiSabato was one of the champions for keeping Eldridge in place until the Eleventh Hour when it became obvious Eldridge had to go.
Although Gosnell was only appointed to the permanent administrator position during Tuesday night’s council meeting, he has been serving as interim administrator for three months. He should have already been addressing the issues Hardee spoke about. They are not secret and they are definite problems in the way the fire/rescue department operates.
Eleven members of council voted for Gosnell to be appointed to the permanent position. It is up to them to work with and through Gosnell to solve these problems. Likewise, it is incumbent upon Gosnell to step up and address these and other issues within the county administration that have caused problems for a number of years.
It’s great for Gosnell to be liked by council members, but the question about whether he was the right choice for the job remains to be determined by how effective he is in correcting the various internal issues that currently plague county government.