MYRTLE BEACH — On Wednesday morning, Brenda Bethune received an unexpected call from Gov. Henry McMaster, congratulating her on winning a runoff election for the mayor's seat.
But when she walked into Better Brands, the local Anheuser-Busch distributor she owns, it was business as usual.
“When I came in this morning, they said, ‘Good morning, mayor,’ and I said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that here,'" Bethune said. "This is home, this is us, here I’m just ‘Brenda,’ and we’re going to keep it the same as it always has been.”
Bethune bested three-term incumbent John Rhodes by a 2-1 margin in the runoff. She will be the city's first female mayor when she is sworn in Jan. 9 and presides over a City Council with more women members than at any time in Myrtle Beach's history. She will also chair the council as two council members and several senior members of city staff also take their leave.
"In all of the years I have been involved in local politics, I cannot remember a time when three seats flipped in the same cycle," said Larry Bragg, chairman of the city's architectural review board and someone who has closely watched city politics for decades.
In Myrtle Beach's form of government, the city manager handles most of the day-to-day business, with the council setting policies for city staff to follow. The mayor presides over that panel and receives a $50,000 salary, more than double what a council member makes.
Bethune said she would focus first on changing the time of City Council meetings, which have been held during the day, and try to bring a police academy to Myrtle Beach as the city attempts to expand its police department.
Myrtle Beach born
Bethune is a native of Myrtle Beach and lived in a family-owned motel until she was 6. She is the daughter of a well-known figure around town, the late William "Spud" Spadoni, who arrived in Myrtle Beach with the Air Force and eventually bought Better Brands, Inc., the Budweiser wholesaler.
Bethune had hoped for a career in fashion design, but plans changed when her older brother, who was working at Better Brands, died in a boating accident at 23. She began working at the family business in the warehouse, and eventually became its president. It's now helmed by Mike Riley, but Bethune chairs the company's board and is its majority owner.
Bethune said throughout the race that she wanted to entice local businesses and investors to help redevelop some of the city's beleaguered blocks downtown.
But in January, Rhodes unveiled a controversial redevelopment that would place a library and children's museum on 9th Avenue North. The city's redevelopment agency has already spent more than $3 million buying storefronts that would be torn down for the new complex.
Bethune said she absolutely opposes the demolition.
"We need to preserve what little bit of history we have there," she said.
Transforming City Council
Bethune won the vote by a huge margin in the fast-growing Market Common area with the aid of Ed Carey, the third-place finisher who endorsed her in the runoff for supporting single-member districts for City Council members.
On Wednesday, she said she was still willing to discuss a change to the council, which has six at-large members, in addition to the mayor. That talk could be destabilizing, however, for current and newly elected City Council members, who are largely concentrated on the north side of the city. Only one resides south of Mr. Joe White Avenue.
Bethune said she plans to tread lightly after taking the gavel in January.
"One new person would have been a major change, but now they have three," she said. "And they’re all friends with John Rhodes, just as I am, so I do want to be very careful building that relationship and helping them throughout this transition to understand that I’m not a threat."
She did say, however, that she planned to re-examine the times City Council meets. Myrtle Beach's council meets two Tuesdays every month for a 9 a.m. workshop and then a 2 p.m. meeting where members will vote on ordinances and other measures. The afternoon meeting is broadcast on public access television, but the morning meeting, which is where council members often flesh out their positions, is not televised.
Other area governments, including Surfside Beach, North Myrtle Beach, Conway, Horry County and the county school board, all meet in the evening.
“Do we need to change this at all so we can be more inclusive of the community?" Bethune asked. "If it’s not every single meeting, is it once a month, is it once a quarter?”
Though Myrtle Beach's mayor has just one vote, the mayor also serves as the public face of the city, an important job in a tourist destination where local businesses are eager to present a sunny picture to the outside world.
Bethune has pledged to take on that role with a more even tone than her predecessor, who was well-known for off-the-cuff comments. After a shooting on Myrtle Beach's main tourist thoroughfare in June, Rhodes criticized a visitor who broadcast a live video of the incident and later took to calling critics worried about crime "Chicken Littles."
Public safety was also a top issue this fall, and every candidate agreed that the city must expand its police force. Police Chief Amy Prock presented a plan to do that last month.
But Bethune said she wants to examine the pay structure for police to ensure the city attracts and retains enough officers. She also has pledged to fight for a second state police academy in the Myrtle Beach area. Currently, South Carolina has only one Criminal Justice Academy, in Columbia.
"I think this is a great area for a training facility for officers," Bethune said. "It would be a feather in the cap for our state to have more than one training facility."