Tag: special interests

Politicians for Sale?

Attempting to keep political decisions free from outside influence has been a problem virtually since the beginning of the American Republic.
During a recent county council meeting, a woman told council members she was involved in a group that was studying campaign donors and votes on projects the donors were involved with in order to see if any council members were apparently giving preferential treatment to their donors.
But the question of influence is not restricted to campaign donations.
SC Code 8-13-700 states:
(A) No public official, public member, or public employee may knowingly use his official office, membership, or employment to obtain an economic interest for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated.
(B) No public official, public member, or public employee may make, participate in making, or in any way attempt to use his office, membership, or employment to influence a governmental decision in which he, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated has an economic interest.
A politician who is a principal in a political consulting business that accepts consulting fees from a candidate then endorses or arranges endorsements from other politicians can appear to be using their official office to help the election of a candidate from whom they are accepting fees.
This is the case of Crescent Communications, in which Russell Fry, Heather Crawford and Cam Crawford all participate as campaign consultants. In both 2016 and 2018, Crescent Communications ran the campaigns of local politicians who were later endorsed by one or more of the Crescent Communications crew. Two attorneys I spoke with believe this violates SC Code section 8-13-700 stated above.
Now Fry is running for Congress. Instead of using his associates in Crescent Communications, he has hired Ivory Tusk Consulting, in which fellow SC House member R. J. May is associated. It will be interesting to see what endorsements, if any, Fry obtains in this race and from whom they come.
Influence can be more subtle than money.
As a member of the SC House, Alan Clemmons not only endorsed, but also heavily campaigned for the election of Stephen Goldfinch as senator, the election of Case Brittain as a representative and the reelection of Sen. Luke Rankin.
Clemmons hired Heather Crawford before she was elected to the SC House to do consulting and constituent services for him. Clemmons’ campaign account filings show he paid Crawford $150,000 over the course of five years for these services but failed to replace her when Crawford was elected to be a representative.

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Fry Kicks Off Campaign

House District 106 representative Russell Fry officially kicked off his campaign for the SC 7th Congressional District Republican nomination at an event last night.
Fry has finally criticized incumbent representative Tom Rice for voting to impeach President Donald Trump in January. It only took Fry seven months to finally take this stand and after eight other candidates, none of whom were afraid to criticize Rice immediately after his vote to impeach, already entered the race.
His announcement of the campaign event included the phrase, “That’s why I’m announcing my campaign for Congress on Thursday, August 5—to guard the faith, families, and freedom of our fellow citizens.”
That statement is nothing but political rhetoric and sounds like a sound bite paraphrasing Superman fighting for ‘truth, justice and the American way’ in the old 1950’s television show of the same name.
The announcement also stated, “Your Congressman should do more than simply use his vote to look out for our interests here at home.”
I submit the voters want a Congressman whose primary goal is to use his vote to look out for the interests of the citizens here at home instead of special interests and those same voters are not interested in sound bites but rather in solid pledges from a candidate.
One pledge Fry did make was about I-73 and seemed to be aimed at those special interests who have had their way in Horry County for too long.
Fry was quoted as saying, “I think it’s a meritorious project for families in and around here,” he said. “It is a public safety issue. It is a jobs and economy issue. It’s a connectivity issue. There are a lot of benefits that come from interstate access that would that would be great not only for the Grand Strand, but the entire Pee Dee region.”
That statement is standard phrasing about I-73 that we have been subjected to since a 2005 study of the “economic impact” of the project was first completed. It is a necessary ingredient to any campaign that hopes to attract support from the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and its associated PACs as well as the special interests who expect to gain financially from any construction of I-73 within the county.

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Fate of County Council Draws Near with Upcoming Vote on Impact Fees

In two weeks, the 12 members of Horry County Council will go a long way toward deciding their future fates with the voters when third reading of the county impact fee ordinance comes up for a vote.
In 2018, over 70% of voters approved establishing impact fees in the county on an advisory referendum question on the general election ballot.
Those voters have not forgotten their eminently clear message to county council – vote for impact fees.
On the table at third reading of the ordinance is imposition of an impact fee of approximately $6,600 for new single-family homes and varying impact fees for other types of new construction depending on the type.
The need for impact fees to pay for the costs of new development is quite simple. Revenue from those fees can be used to fund new capital projects in a variety of categories including roads, parks and recreation facilities, libraries, fire stations and police stations that will be needed to serve the huge amount of development currently underway in the county.
Using impact fees to pay for such new construction can reduce the pressure on the general fund to pay those costs or the need to impose such things as special projects sales taxes such as the RIDE tax.
To further exacerbate the issue, eight members of county council (Johnny Vaught, Dennis DiSabato, Cam Crawford, Gary Loftus, Bill Howard, Orton Bellamy, Danny Hardee and Mark Causey) provided the votes to pass the largest individual tax increase in Horry County history – 7.5 mils in the unincorporated area plus increases in two additional fees.
As one social media post noted about the tax increase, “Absolutely heinous that the special interests and county council put all this (costs of) new development on the backs of existing taxpayers. Unbelievable! If they had imposed impact fees when the majority of HC residents approved them several years ago, we wouldn’t have to have such huge mil increases. This is literally taxation without representation and it’s theft.”
And another, “The tax and spend so-called Republicans don’t give a flip. They will find any excuse to raise taxes on the hard-working residents of Horry County.”
Three members of county council, Chairman Johnny Gardner, Harold Worley and Al Allen received thanks for voting against the tax increase and “putting the people first.” Council member Tyler Servant was absent for the vote.
The message in those posts is certainly clear, but one wonders whether all council members are hearing that message.

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Incumbents Rule Primary Elections

Primary election night was ruled by incumbents at all levels.

Only one incumbent lost, Janice Morreale in the District 5 school board race, and that was not a loss to a newcomer. Former county councilman for that district, Howard Barnard, defeated Morreale. Barnard gave up his council seat when he unsuccessfully ran for council chairman 10 years ago.

There will be newcomers to the county council District Nine seat and Horry County Auditor as incumbents Paul Prince and Lois Eargle, respectively, did not seek reelection. Both races will go to a primary runoff in two weeks with Mark Causey and Terry Fowler squaring off for District 10 and R. A. Johnson facing Beth Calhoun for Auditor.

One other incumbent, Sen. Luke Rankin, was forced to a runoff with challenger John Gallman in two weeks as either failed to get over 50 percent of the votes cast.

The victories by the incumbents effectively guarantee that the special interests in the county will play a big role over the next several years to the detriment of average citizens.

There is no doubt there will be a renewed effort to use county tax revenues, not state or federal dollars, to construct the Interstate 73 section in Horry County.

Likewise, developers will continue their push to build anywhere they wish, as much as they wish without any consideration for existing infrastructure and public safety needs of the areas to be developed.

Expect any county council attempt to pass impact fees on new development to be foiled and flood mitigation to be put on the back burner as special interests strive to make as much profit as possible.

There is no doubt that the Covid 19 epidemic played a part in the loss of the challengers as they were restricted in any ability to address groups of voters. Incumbents already had familiarity and name recognition going for them.

However, the basic fault lies with voters, or rather lack of them.

Emotions Running High as Elections Near

Earlier this week I wrote an article about several candidates in the upcoming Republican primary elections to which some readers took offense.

That’s fine. Democracy is supposed to be messy and I don’t expect people to agree with me all the time nor I with them. If that were to happen, we wouldn’t have a democratic society, we would have a cult.

Some of the people who took difference to what I wrote were important members of the citizens’ groups who helped elect Johnny Gardner as Horry County Council Chairman in 2018.

Their and my primary goal is to elect candidates who will represent the general citizenry of Horry County, not special interests.

Specifically, they believed I was attacking Terry Fowler, a candidate for county council in District 9.

Actually that was not what I intended. What I intended was to criticize that many seemed to choose Fowler as ‘their’ candidate very early on before all the candidates in the race were even known.

When some of those other candidates emerged and a choice was already made by some voters, those candidates were immediately dismissed as candidates of the people because they sell real estate.

I don’t believe people should be condemned merely because of the job they have or the people they know.

If that were the case, consider this: there are ties in the Fowler family to a former job with what I categorize as a premier member of what I call the Myrtle Beach Mafia.  This employer was in the midst of the $325,000 in campaign donations to local and state incumbents who were responsible for the establishment and enactment of the tourism development fee in Myrtle Beach, as well as other special interest issues.

This is the same person who was a strong supporter and former business associate of Mark Lazarus, the former council chairman.

But, it goes further than employment. Only one candidate in the District 9 race has spoken with Gardner about county issues. That candidate, one of the real estate write-offs, is the only candidate in the District 9 race to date who has pledged to support the passage of impact fees in Horry County.

Citizens or Special Interests – County Council Direction Will be Decided by June Primaries

The direction county council will take over the next several years will likely be determined by three contested races in the Republican Primary to be held on June 9, 2020.

Those three races are Horry County Districts 3, 4 and 6, currently held by incumbents Dennis DiSabato, Gary Loftus and Cam Crawford, respectively. Those three council members have consistently been stooges for the special interests in the county.

DiSabato, Loftus and Crawford were consistent “yes” votes for any initiative former council chairman Mark Lazarus brought to the table. The purchase of approximately 3,700 acres of wetlands off of International for $12 million of taxpayer money is one example that quickly comes to mind.

The parcel purchased by the county was part of a larger parcel purchased by a developer in Virginia years ago. The wetlands couldn’t be developed so the county purchased the land with the purported goal of establishing a wetland mitigation bank to be used when capital projects required mitigation credits for disturbing wetlands. No other parcel in the county was considered, no record of a request for proposals was sent out by the county.

The three stooges voted in lockstep to spend county money for land that was basically useless to the developer for the price of approximately $3,243 per acre.

After Lazarus was defeated for reelection, DiSabato, Crawford and Loftus were charter members for what I dubbed the Deep Six, council members who fought long and hard to keep former county administrator Chris Eldridge in office after Eldridge and county attorney Arrigo Carotti lodged groundless accusations of extortion against current chairman Johnny Gardner, who defeated Lazarus, Eldridge’s strongest supporter on council.

Anyone who watched the March 2019 special council meeting, called to remove Eldridge, will recall DiSabato launching into accusations against Gardner after an investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) concluded the accusations were without any merit.

The three stooges voted not to fire Eldridge in March, ultimately costing the taxpayers of Horry County $350,000 when council voted to buy out Eldridge’s contract in April 2019 rather than firing him one month before.

DiSabato, Crawford and Loftus have been consistent supporters of having county taxpayers fund construction of Interstate 73. Constructing I-73 remains a major goal of special interests in the county who will benefit financially from construction of the road.

Filing for Elected Office Begins in Two Weeks, Trouble for Incumbents?

In two weeks candidate filing for the 2020 election cycle for state and local offices will begin.

Candidate filing begins at noon March 16, 2020. The local primary elections will be held June 9, 2020 with the winners of the primaries going on to the November 3, 2020 general election.

All seats in the General Assembly will be up for election, both House and Senate. Locally, five county council seats and five school board seats will be contested as well as the county wide offices of Sheriff, Treasurer, Auditor, Clerk of Courts, Probate Judge, Solicitor and Coroner.

In a one party county and state such as Horry and South Carolina, the primaries are where the real action will take place.

An anti-incumbent trend against elected officials in legislative positions was prevalent in the 2018 elections. Three out of four incumbents for either county council or the S.C. House of Representatives who were challenged by new candidates lost their seats. The fourth managed to squeak back into office by a margin of 31 votes.

There is no reason to expect that trend won’t continue in this election cycle.

Flooding resulting from what is seen by the voters as uncontrolled development in the county is a top issue with voters. One only has to see the “Tired of Flooding, Vote Them Out” signs along county roads to understand incumbents are in trouble with voters.

The lack of maintenance and enhancement of existing infrastructure while new projects such as Interstate 73 are pushed by legislators is seen as another significant problem for incumbents.

And the eternal question in the county of who or what influences incumbents when they cast their votes will be up for interpretation by voters. Do the incumbents vote for issues pushed by developers, the Chamber of Commerce and other special interests who fund their campaigns or do they consider what is in the best interests of the citizens they represent when voting?

The answer to that question may decide a number of races in June depending on how many incumbents are challenged.

County Council Adds More Controversy to Hospitality Fee Settlement

Horry County Council approved an amended settlement agreement at its special meeting Monday night that added to the controversy regarding settling the hospitality fee lawsuit.

Council split 7-5 on votes to amend the settlement agreement and to approve the settlement agreement as amended. Those voting for the agreement were Johnny Vaught, Dennis DiSabato, Cam Crawford, Gary Loftis, Bill Howard, Tyler Servant and Orton Bellamy.

The Deep Six (Vaught, DiSabato, Crawford, Loftis, Servant and Howard) can always be counted on to support anything the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber and other special interests in the county want. Vaught is counting on that group to fund his run for chairman in two years while DiSabato, Crawford and Loftis expect significant donations from special interests to fund their upcoming reelection campaigns.

The special interests want I-73, they fall in line to keep it in play.

Voting against the settlement were Chairman Johnny Gardner, Harold Worley, Al Allen, Danny Hardee and Paul Prince.

As Worley said at the beginning of open debate on the question, the elephant in the room was I-73.

The settlement agreement as presented Monday night would provide approximately $14.5 million per year toward I-73. As Worley pointed out this amount is a drop in the bucket for a project that will require approximately $670 million to complete the road in Horry County, $1.3 billion to reach I-95 and over $2 billion for the total project to the North Carolina border in Marlboro County.

But the drop in the bucket is important to those landowners in Horry County who will benefit from right of way purchases for the road and the engineering and other businesses who will profit from the early design and site work for the project.

The federal and state governments will have to come in with significant money for the road to ever be completed but the local special interests can realize a significant income from the early work that can be paid for if the county contributes. Like always, it’s all about the money.

Administrator Process Clouded by Change vs. Selfish Agendas

As we come within 24 hours of the interview process for the county administrator candidates, I wonder what, if any, last minute attempts will be made to usurp the process by council members supporting interim administrator Steve Gosnell.

Make no mistake, any council member who tries at this late date to stop the public interview process is only following the directions of those special interests in the background who have his ear and his own selfish agenda.

Since those special interests were unsuccessful at keeping former administrator Chris Eldridge in place, their main goal has been to replace Eldridge with someone who wouldn’t ‘rock the boat’ as county administrator.

At the beginning of this process Gosnell said he didn’t want the position. Then, three stories about how he decided to seek the position rose and Johnny Vaught became his champion. There is a reason other than Gosnell’s eagerness why the push is on so hard to get him appointed.

And then there is the problem of the employment of Gosnell’s wife with the county and how his appointment as administrator could affect her employment because of state law, even though by all accounts she is an excellent employee. Johnny Vaught said she could just go to work for an elected official. What elected official wants to step into this mess?

Gosnell will not represent change. He is not the person by temperament or inclination to make needed changes in the personnel or internal operation of Horry County Government.

This is exactly why those council members who have been working hard to engineer Gosnell’s selection as county administrator want him to have the job. The special interests who have the ear of those council members, those expected to fund upcoming election campaigns, don’t want change.

Let’s just look at two examples of what could be interesting public interviews on Wednesday.

County Administrator Applications Close While Vaught Continues Hijacking Attempt

The application period for a new, permanent county administrator closed yesterday while council member Johnny Vaught continued his attempts to hijack the entire process in favor of interim administrator Steve Gosnell.

As recently as Tuesday, Vaught was maintaining that he had the votes of 9 – 10 council members to appoint Gosnell to the permanent position. This is before all applications were in, before the qualifications of any of the applicants were assessed and before any interviews were conducted to determine who might be the best person to lead the administration of Horry County Government going forward.

After former administrator Chris Eldridge and county attorney Arrigo Carotti failed in their attempt to discredit incoming chairman Johnny Gardner and it became obvious Eldridge had to go, Gosnell said at that time he didn’t even want the administrator job on an interim basis.

Ultimately, after Eldridge was separated from his county employment, Gosnell did accept the interim job but, with the provision he could return to his job as Infrastructure and Regulation Division head.

When the application process for the permanent position opened, Gosnell said he did not know that he would even apply.

Still, Vaught pursued his personal agenda to keep Gosnell in place. But, Vaught’s personal agenda is not what the county needs at this time.

Gosnell is a nice man and has been a good county engineer. However, with only two years to go until retirement and having served in the senior staff of the failed Eldridge administration, he is not what is needed for the county to move forward to realize its potential.