Treasurer Drops Lawsuit, County Refuses to Disclose Legal Costs

By Paul Gable

Horry County Treasurer Angie Jones yesterday filed to dismiss her lawsuit against Horry County and county administrator Chris Eldridge with prejudice for all events that relate to the lawsuit up through the date of filing, May 17, 2018.

Jones initially filed her lawsuit in November 2017 after county government refused to add one additional administrative assistant position to the current year budget for the Treasurer’s Office. Jones said the amount of additional funds the position would have required was approximately $43,000 including salary and benefit costs.

The dismissal does not affect Jones’ potential “to assert claims relating to future circumstances that may arise,” according to the filing.

Related to Jones’ filing, the county dismissed all claims against Jones related to its Amended Answer and Counterclaims.

According to the stipulation of dismissal, each party is solely responsible for its own costs and attorneys’ fees.

On May 3, 2018, this reporter filed a Freedom  of Information Act request with Horry County Government for “Total amount to date spent by Horry County to McNair Law Firm specifically for legal services pursuant to the Horry County Treasurer/Angie Jones v. Horry County government and Administrator Chris Eldridge.”

Henrietta Golding of the McNair Law Firm was lead attorney for the county’s defense.

On May 17, 2018, the same day the dismissals were filed with the court, Horry County Public Information Specialist Kelly Brosky sent the following response to my request, “Your request for information is not covered under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act and is declined.”

In response, I requested the specific citation in the S. C. Freedom of Information Act statute that the county believes provides them authority to exempt the information regarding the amount paid to the McNair Law Firm.

According to an attorney who has experience in the area of the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act, there is nothing in the statute that allows an exemption to the disclosure of the expenditure of public funds by a public body.

However, this is Horry County where it’s often thought the law doesn’t apply and facts are rarely as they are presented.

Jones initially filed her lawsuit because she believed the county was not living up to its responsibility under the Home Rule Act of sufficiently funding her department for staffing.

The county responded with personal attacks against Jones in their amended answer to the lawsuit including alleging to media Jones and former Horry County Clerk of Courts Melanie Huggins-Ward were trying to “game the (retirement) system” by using Huggins-Ward as a temporary employee in the Treasurer’s Office.

According to the Home Rule Act, the Treasurer has sole authority to determine hiring and staffing within her department. County council approves the overall county budget, which includes funding for the Treasurer’s Office, but, as long as the Treasurer’s budget requests are within reason, it is expected sufficient funding will be provided by council.

After Jones presented her budget for the upcoming fiscal year to council, county assistant administrator Justin Powell sent Jones an email requesting specific additional information and justification with regards to her budget.

Jones responded with a statement that Home Rule does not require a countywide elected official to report to a county administration employee and she would deal directly with council on her budget request.

Council chairman Mark Lazarus responded to Jones with a letter that criticized her “non-response” to the assistant administrator and castigated Jones for not cooperating.

At this point, the January-February 2018 time frame, county council member Johnny Vaught began attempting to find a way around the rift that had opened between the chairman and other members of council and Jones for the good of the county, including sending an email to council members criticizing some of the comments about Jones that had entered the public arena.

When personally asked by this reporter about the chances of getting the dispute settled, Vaught said Lazarus stated he was staying out of the dispute and was willing to let it go to court.

However, things changed after election filing closed and Lazarus faced competition in the upcoming June 12, 2018 Republican Primary for the county council chairman seat with negotiations speeding up.

The change culminated with an executive session during this week’s council meeting where discussions were held about dropping the lawsuit. According to two sources with knowledge of the discussions, the outside attorney argued against dropping the lawsuit.

The only public statement on the issue was a vote by council on a motion directing the county administrator to follow through on the plan that was discussed in secret.

For two days media sources ran stories that the lawsuit was going to be dropped by both sides with Vaught providing some comments on the subject. Ultimately the lawsuit was dropped by both sides with the court filing yesterday.

With the lawsuit dropped after secret discussions among council and the county denying a request for how much in public funds was expended for outside legal fees, one wonders what else is being shielded from the public.

And, is the question of proper relations within county government only important at reelection time?

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