By Paul Gable
The recent resignation of Joseph Huffman from senior staff at Horry County Government demonstrates the need for a new approach to leadership of the county staff.
Huffman, who was the county’s public safety director for two years, resigned after the Mississippi Auditor demanded he repay approximately $6,800 to the state of Mississippi for mismanaging bond money as city manager of Pascagoula.
The mismanagement of the money included depositing the bond proceeds into the city’s general fund in order to make the budget appear to have a surplus instead of the deficit it was actually running. The deposit into the general fund also cost the city interest earnings on the bond money.
According to sources in Horry County Government, Huffman went to interim administrator Steve Gosnell to say it was best if he (Huffman) resigned. Those sources said Gosnell responded that he would support Huffman if Huffman did not wish to resign.
Such an offer should never have been made by Gosnell. A man acting as the county public safety director had mismanaged funds in Pascagoula, Mississippi in order to deceive the council he worked for.
Is this really the type of person we want being the top public safety official in Horry County? I think not!
The problem goes deeper. According to the government sources, former administrator Chris Eldridge was aware of Huffman’s difficulties in Mississippi as early as last summer. According to sources, Eldridge blamed the entire problem on political differences with a new city administration rather than the actual mismanagement of city money.
Huffman was hired in May 2017, approximately two years after Eldridge received a substantial raise from county council partially on the condition that in addition to being administrator Eldridge would assume the duties of public safety director after the firing of Paul Whitten.
Two years later, Huffman, who reportedly knew Eldridge since they both served in public administration jobs in North Carolina, was hired at a salary of approximately $135,000 annually.
According to numerous current and former public safety employees, Huffman was not considered to be a good manager by the rank and file employees of the division. Instead he was considered as someone who would do whatever Eldridge dictated. During Huffman’s, two year tenure, morale in the division plummeted significantly, according to those employees.
Gosnell is a good man and a loyal man. He reportedly told county council he would not fire anyone in senior staff as a condition for accepting the interim administrator position. However, he should not have hesitated firing Huffman as soon as he became aware of the findings in Mississippi.
In addition, Huffman is not the only member of senior staff who needed to be replaced. Others who were in the Eldridge clique and blindly followed his directives remain employed by the county, but should be terminated also.
The Huffman case is only the first of what should be a house cleaning of senior staff so the county can move forward and Eldridge and his clique can be removed from memory.
Council still has not been informed details about the missing IT switches which will cost the county $550,000 in next year’s budget to replace while the IT department head remains in place.
Eldridge’s co-conspirator in the attempt to smear council chairman Johnny Gardner, county attorney Arrigo Carotti, remains in place.
Gosnell’s wife is a county employee and a good one by all accounts. However, it appears she would have to quit her county employment if Gosnell becomes permanent administrator because of state laws regarding family members.
One council member, Johnny Vaught, who tried to hijack the selection process early and still continues to push the Gosnell candidacy with any media he can get to listen to him. It has been reported that Vaught would solve the problem of Gosnell’s wife by getting a county elected official, such as the sheriff, clerk of courts, solicitor or the like, to hire her.
However, Vaught may want to familiarize himself with the findings of the court in the Eargle v. Angus lawsuit before he goes any further with that plan.
Vaught initially claimed 10 votes for Gosnell. However, according to information received by this reporter, he does not even have a majority of council votes at this point.
Any council member looking to do the right thing by choosing a new administrator who will improve the workings of county government should look elsewhere among the qualified candidates. It is time for council to forego serving special interests and serve the entire citizenry of Horry County.