By Paul Gable
For the past week, Horry County and illegal have been combined in local media headlines about several issues..
Wednesday was a banner day for the county in such actions. Not only did Jay Bender, the preeminent legal authority on the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act, say county council conducted an illegal executive session but also lawyers for the City of Myrtle Beach went to court requesting the judge to find the county “in contempt of the authority of this Court” for apparently violating a court order issued last Friday with respect to the county’s continued collection of the Hospitality Fee.
The actions that led to executive session were well orchestrated. After council member Johnny Vaught made the motion to go into executive session, council chairman correctly called it out of order because no executive session was listed on the agenda. County attorney and council parliamentarian Arrigo Carotti jumped up to say under Robert’s Rules of Order, a motion for executive session was proper.
What Carotti never addressed were the requirements of the FOIA law, which made executive session illegal in this case, according to Bender’s statement. Shouldn’t the county attorney and parliamentarian have addressed those requirements before ruling executive session legal?
As Bender pointed out, this is at least the third time this year Horry County has not adhered to FOIA requirements. Unfortunately, the FOIA law has no teeth. There are no consequences for the county if it chooses to ignore the law, which it does when necessary.
While Vaught stated some reasons for executive session that sounded shaky at the time, he accomplished his goal in keeping the interviews of candidates for the administrator position out of the public eye.
I submit Vaught did not want the public to be able to compare the candidates’ respective presentations, especially make comparisons with his chosen candidate Steve Gosnell. In that Vaught was successful even if it took an illegal executive session, which Carotti ruled appropriate, to accomplish it.
The Hospitality Fee issue is one that could affect the county significantly. Last Friday, Judge Seals ordered a temporary restraining order, which prohibits the county from collecting hospitality fees within the at least the city limits of Myrtle Beach and quite probably in any of the incorporated municipalities.
After reading the court order signed by the judge on June 21, 2019, it is obvious the county had its clock cleaned by Myrtle Beach in court.
Last December the county signed a Financial Participation Agreement with the South Carolina Department of Transportation for funding the construction of Interstate 73 within the county. Hospitality Fee revenue was the source of funding for the agreement.
With the loss of hospitality fee revenue collected in the cities, the county cannot fund that agreement. Additionally, there is significant finding in court documentation that the county apparently has been collecting that revenue illegally since January 1, 2017.
The county and the cities originally agreed for a 1.5% countywide hospitality fee to be collected by the county to fund Ride I projects. That original agreement ran for a period of 20 years which ended January 1, 2017.
The county unilaterally extended the countywide collection of hospitality fees beyond January 1, 2017 without any documented consent from the cities, which state law requires. Review of the video recordings of the county council meetings where hospitality fee extension was discussed shows Carotti assuring council members the county was on sound legal ground in voting to extend the fee.
The court disagreed quite strongly with the county’s legal arguments supporting its extension of fee collections, the same arguments Carotti assured council had solid legal foundation, and enjoined further collections outside the unincorporated areas of the county until the lawsuit brought by Myrtle Beach is settled.
Vaught is one of the members on council strongly in support of the I-73 project and the agreement with SCDOT even though there is no means of funding that agreement at the present time nor probably one in the future.
Vaught voiced strong support for Carotti from the council dais after Carotti’s various questionable actions in the unsuccessful attempt to smear Gardner came to light several months ago. That attempt against Gardner cost former administrator Chris Eldridge his job. One wonders why Carotti has been allowed to keep his with all the mistakes he has made.