Horry County meeting devolves into confusion over attorney fees, some worry more is afoot

·10 min read

Toward the end of an otherwise routine meeting Tuesday night, the Horry County Council devolved into confusion as members voted abruptly to end the meeting and then instead recessed for nearly 15 minutes to debate whether or not the meeting should restart to discuss additional agenda items.

Eight council members — led by member Dennis DiSabato — voted to end the meeting early. Ultimately, the recess ended and Council Chairman Johnny Gardner, seemingly irked, declared the meeting over without restarting it.

County Council on Tuesday, after discussing a number of development projects and other pieces of regular county business, reached an agenda item that read: “Discussion of the county’s legal fees.” It was a discussion item included at the bottom of the agenda, a tool Council Chairman Johnny Gardner said he uses to allow members to pitch various ideas for discussion that might not otherwise come up.

Council member Al Allen, who represents Aynor and much of Western Horry County, was the one asking for that discussion item.

But as the council reached that agenda item, DiSabato, who represents part of Myrtle Beach and Forestbrook, called for the meeting to end. After a vote, seven other council members joined him, agreeing to end the meeting before discussing county legal fees. More back-and-forth among council members resulted in the 15-minute recess before Gardner formally closed the meeting.

Why Allen wished to discuss Horry County’s legal fees, and why DiSabato moved to end the meeting before that could happen, is not fully clear. Both Allen and DiSabato declined to comment on the matter Tuesday.

But two county officials, both of whom spoke on the condition their names not be used, said they believe that the conflict Tuesday night was politically motivated and could have, in the near future, led to some council members wishing to fire Horry County’s attorney, Arrigo Carotti, and possibly its Administrator, Steve Gosnell. The Sun News granted anonymity to the two sources to allow them to discuss sensitive county business candidly. The Sun News believes doing so is in the interest of the public.

According to the two sources, Allen wished to discuss which outside attorneys the county paid and why as a means to denigrate Carotti’s ability to serve the county well. Those two sources said they believe Allen wanted to do that to establish grounds to ask Gosnell to fire Carotti. If Gosnell refused, the two sources said, Allen might have used that refusal as ground to call for Gosnell’s firing, too.

Councilman Dennis Disabato gets into a heated exchange with Chairman Gardner during Tuesday’s special meeting. Horry County Council’s vote on the termination of county administrator Chris Eldridge’s contract failed on Tuesday. Mar 05, 2019.
Councilman Dennis Disabato gets into a heated exchange with Chairman Gardner during Tuesday’s special meeting. Horry County Council’s vote on the termination of county administrator Chris Eldridge’s contract failed on Tuesday. Mar 05, 2019.

County Council member Johnny Vaught confirmed that he and other council members were concerned that Allen might raise questions about the information without having first seen it in a private meeting.

“That was one of the concerns is that he had not seen that information and that he would question that without having seen it,” Vaught said. However, Vaught said, he didn’t know why Allen wanted to raise questions about the information.

“I don’t know what his motives were and I won’t speculate on what they were,” Vaught said.

Allen, though, said it wasn’t true that he wanted to raise concerns about Carotti. Gardner, too, said he did not have, and had not heard of, any issues with Carotti prior to Tuesday evening.

“That’s the first I heard about anyone losing their job,” Gardner said in a phone call Wednesday. “I have no suspicions about the attorneys fees.”

Allen’s version of events

Allen — who answered questions from The Sun News via email — said he requested the information about attorneys fees several weeks ago after local attorneys approached him about how they might get legal work with the county. He said he had never been asked about that before, and began researching the issue. As part of that research, Allen said, he learned that the county had paid $1.25 million to outside attorneys over the past three years, and that he’d need to ask Carotti for a list of who all the county worked with. Allen said he did that, but that Carotti has never responded to him.

Multiple people confirmed that county staff complied with Allen’s request, and told council members that they could view and discuss the information privately, but not publicly.

County staff, the sources and several council members said, believed a discussion of who the county had hired and what they paid them could give away county legal strategy, something it seeks to avoid as it defends the local government in all manner of cases.

A recent example was Myrtle Beach’s lawsuit against the county over the hospitality fees. The county’s current legal conflict with Myrtle Beach before the Federal Aviation Administration over two pieces of campground land is another example. The Horry County attorney, as well as others in county government, routinely hire outside firms, including lawyers, to assist with various projects, lawsuits or investigations. Between October 2019 and February 2021, for example, Horry County paid Battle Law Firm $141,641 for services including an investigation into local massage parlors, according to payments obtained via public records request.

But Allen said he wished to discuss what outside attorneys the county hires and why publicly at a council meeting, and rebuffed offers to attend private meetings on the topic.

In his email, Allen said Vaught, who chairs the council’s administrative committee, requested that he attend an April 27 meeting of that body, and join the members for an executive session afterwards, where they’d discuss the attorney fee information. But Allen said he was out of town on business and couldn’t attend that meeting.

Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner speaks with fellow councilman Al Allen before the start of a council meeting Tuesday at the Horry County Courthouse in Conway.
Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner speaks with fellow councilman Al Allen before the start of a council meeting Tuesday at the Horry County Courthouse in Conway.

Because he was not able to get that information then, Allen wrote, he asked Gardner to place an item on the council’s May 4 meeting agenda to discuss the matter publicly, as a way to compel county administrators to share the information with him directly.

“I asked the Chairman to place it on the agenda to try and get a response out of the Administrator and the County Attorney on the information I had requested,” Allen wrote.

He then contacted Gosnell, he wrote, and requested a meeting between the two of them, Gardner and Carotti to discuss the attorney fee information. Gosnell agreed, and Allen said he told Gosnell that he would “gladly” pull the item off of council’s agenda if they settled the matter at the meeting. Gosnell set the meeting for 10 a.m., May 4.

However, Allen wrote, other members of council, including Council members Bill Howard and Cam Crawford, attended that meeting. Allen was upset.

“I then very politely stood up and stated, ‘I’m not going to play this game, I’ll ask my questions this evening,’ and walked out,” he wrote.

That’s why he asked Gardner to keep the attorney fee item on the agenda, he said.

Allen contends that he’s concerned about the county’s attorney’s fees because the information hasn’t been provided to him in a direct and transparent way. He said in his email that Carotti “ignored a simple and legitimate request from a Council member.”

“I might add that any information requested by any member of Council that is a legitimate request should never be filtered by a staff member through another council member,” Allen wrote. “That causes division that is unwarranted and shows an appearance of hiding something or failure of transparency in government.”

County spokesperson Kelly Moore did not immediately answer questions in response to Allen’s assertion. She previously said the county would not comment on the matter.

Should attorney information be public or private?

The information Allen sought, though, Vaught said, is supposed to remain out of public view because making the information public could harm the county’s ability to defend itself in court or in other legal matters.

“It’s attorney-client privilege and everyone who has seen the information agrees that’s what it is. Everyone beside Al has seen it,” he said.

After reviewing the information, Vaught said, he was satisfied that Carotti and other county attorneys were doing their jobs well.

“We are satisfied with the people who we’ve hired,” Vaught said. “We had no questions. We felt like (Carotti) was doing a good job and has been doing a good job. Everything was above board.”

Gardner, though, in an email he sent to members of council Wednesday morning, said the information should be open to the public, and was allowed to be shared under the state’s Freedom Of Information Act. Gardner also rebuffed DiSabato’s effort to end Tuesday’s meeting. The Sun News reviewed a copy of the email.

“I am not sure what your end was in adjourning the council meeting before a discussion of county legal fees could be entertained,” Gardner wrote. “Instead, it is subject to the Freedom of Information Act and of public interest on how public tax money is spent.”

Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner speaks during an open session meeting at the Horry County Courthouse Friday.
Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner speaks during an open session meeting at the Horry County Courthouse Friday.

Gardner continued: “You are not the judge of what may or may not be discussed during a council meeting. Let me assure you a discussion of county legal fees will be included on the agenda for our next meeting. You may try some antics to again hinder that discussion but I do not believe you will get a majority of council to back you next time.”

DiSabato said Wednesday that he hadn’t yet read Gardner’s email and didn’t have a response to it yet.

Situation has precedent

Such a situation — in which County Council is asked to vote on the administrator’s employment — would not be without precedent.

Two years ago, after Gardner won his election and was first sworn in as chairman, he found himself entangled in a state police investigation over allegations he had attempted to extort money from two Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp. officials. The former county administrator, Chris Eldridge, had been the one to ask the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division to investigate. Accompanying that request was a memo Carotti had written outlining the county’s concerns. Carotti told SLED investigators in that memo, which has since been made public, that he believed their investigation should not come back “unfounded.”

After Eldridge’s involvement in SLED’s investigation into Gardner came to light, the county council attempted to oust the county administrator, though failed to do so in March 2019. Eventually, Eldridge agreed to resign, accepted a severance package from the county, and Gosnell took over as administrator.

According to the two sources, council members on Tuesday wished to prevent a similar situation from happening again.

Crawford, who represents the Socastee area, said Wednesday in a statement that he was “a bit puzzled by this spontaneous attempt to openly discuss the County’s legal affairs.”

“I have trouble believing this is being done purely from the standpoint of concern for the County and in an effort to be transparent,” Crawford wrote in the statement. “I believe there may be things going behind the scenes that would definitely give the public pause. I sincerely hope that’s not the case, but I suppose time will reveal the truth.”

Crawford added that the situation was “unfortunate” and pointed to Gardner as a cause.

“This is an unfortunate situation,” he wrote, “and I would say that problems of this nature could be avoided if Council’s leader would exert more effective management over the body.”

A blossoming conflict

In an interview Wednesday, Gardner said that though he did not have concerns about county attorney fees or Carotti’s job performance before Tuesday, he does have concerns now. Incensed by the abrupt closure of Tuesday’s meeting, Gardner suggested that he or others on council should investigate why that happened, and if Carotti or other county staff advised DiSabato or others on how to adjourn a meeting.

“I have some concerns about what’s happened in the last 24 hours but that would not be limited to just Carotti, that would be a bunch of people who were involved,” Gardner said.

Gardner said it would have been inappropriate for Carotti or other county staff to advise members of Council on how to adjourn a meeting to avoid discussing a certain topic.

“If we find out that something was awry,” Gardner said, “we’ll do something then.”

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