For nearly a year, Surfside Beach has been dealing with damage from Hurricane Matthew, including about half of the 700-foot wooden pier that had been the town’s centerpiece.
As the town limped through tourist season without its main attraction, the Army Corps of Engineers in mid-July started work on an emergency project rebuilding the beach, which required closing 1,000-foot sections during the busiest days of the summer.
But more recently, a different kind of storm has been brewing inside the packed Town Council chambers in this Horry County hamlet that calls itself “The Family Beach.”
Since Aug. 19, some council members have tried to fire Town Administrator Micki Fellner in response to her firing of the planning director; two planning commission members and the parking committee chairman resigned; and a reporter was told to leave a meeting of town officials and council members.
“Here’s the thing,” Councilwoman Julie Samples said this week. “We are a small town, and the smaller the town, the more personal it gets.”
A part of the Grand Strand, Surfside stretches along two miles on the Atlantic side of U.S. Highway 17 — between unincorporated Garden City and the Ocean Lakes Family Campground.
Its population swells from just over 4,000 residents year-round to 50,000 on busy summer weekends, with visitors drawn to beachfront accommodations and seasonal activities like Sunday Serenades, Crafter’s Cove and hula shows.
It’s also the first town in the nation to become an "Autism Friendly" travel destination.
A recent survey showed that most visitors came for the pier, which has only been partially open since the hurricane, with no fishing allowed. A rebuilt pier is expected to open in 2019.
Fellner is paid $101,430 annually to operate the town on a day-to-day basis. She reports to Mayor Bob Childs, who runs Town Council meetings but has no regular administrative duties, and six council members, who oversee the town’s $12.3 million budget.
The mayor draws $7,200 yearly, and council members make $6,000.
“In defense of this council, we have a new mayor and three new council members,” said Samples, who won her seat in an August 2016 special election to fill the unexpired term of Childs, who beat the incumbent, Samples’ husband Doug, in a runoff for mayor.
“Council members get little to no training. You want to serve, and your intent is to do the very best, and sometimes I do not think it’s clear to newer council members what their scope of authority is.”
Although there are no training requirements for local elected officials, the Municipal Association of South Carolina offers both in person and online classes on open records, governance and policy.
“We have good participation, and it’s a lot of the small towns that do participate,” said Deputy Executive Director Reba Campbell.
Childs and council members Mark Johnson, David Pellegrino and Randle Stevens are all graduates of the Municipal Elected Officials Institute of Government, according to MASC, and Johnson has completed its advanced program.
After Fellner fired Planning, Building and Zoning Director Sabrina Morris, Johnson, Stevens, Timothy Courtney and Ron Ott called a special meeting on Aug. 19 to discuss “the demotion, letter of reprimand for unacceptable conduct and violation of duties and/or complete dismissal” of Fellner. But Stevens’ motion to fire the administrator failed. Johnson joined the mayor, Samples and Pelligrino in voting no.
“We had a flipper!” someone over the din in the standing-room only crowd after the vote. Childs banged his gavel.
Johnson, who called the meeting, said afterward, “We have too many issues going on right now, specifically the pier, and we don’t have adequate staff to pick up the slack,” according to the South Strand News, which is owned by Evening Post Industries, also the parent company for The Post and Courier.
“(The meeting) was not about performance,” Samples said this week. “It was about personalities.”
Fellner, who said she plans to retire in June, agreed.
“I had separated someone from employment, and that was the penalty,” she said. “But I would do the same thing again. It’s politics, and politics is one part of my job that I don’t like at all.”
At the regular council meeting three days later, the planning commission and parking committee members stepped down, citing a lack of faith in the council.
“This is the most dysfunctional council I’ve seen since I’ve been here for 10 years,” said parking committee Chairman Harry Kohlmann, according to television station WBTW. “We thought it was a circus years ago. You guys make it pale in comparison.”
Later that week, council members were called to attend one of three meetings on Aug. 25 with the administrator, finance director and a financial adviser to hear proposals for rebuilding the pier.
The meetings were held a day before a public presentation at which council voted unanimously to replace the pier with a $9.2 million concrete structure, expected to last 50 years, instead of another wooden pier at $3.5 million that would likely have to be replaced in two decades.
When South Strand News Reporter Anita Crone showed up for the Aug. 25 meeting, Surfside police Sgt. Gilbert Williams told her, “Ma'am, it’s a closed meeting and you are not welcome,” according to her newspaper.
The paper obtained documents showing the meetings were called by Fellner and scheduled by town Clerk Debra Herrmann, who wrote in an email, “We cannot have more than three council members at any time.” Crone identified town employees but was unsure which council members were in the meeting.
Four members would constitute a quorum, violating the state Freedom of Information Act. Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said the meetings were “clearly an illegal attempt to circumvent” open meeting law.
“I don’t think they’re evil,” Crone said this week. “I think they just don’t know. The administrator does the best she knows how, but she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know.”
Fellner stands by her opinion.
“It’s not a public meeting,” she said. “I don’t know any city manager or administrator that doesn’t on occasion call in a couple of council members and say, ‘Let’s talk about this subject.’ Those aren’t public meetings. This particular reporter just thinks she has the right to come in and sit down and be in any meeting she wants to.”
Samples, who attended a meeting with one other council member, said she was surprised a reporter showed up.
“It was an opportunity for us to meet with the administrator and the financial experts one-on-one to educate us, so we would be keenly aware of what the presentation was,” she said. “I thought it was made into something that it wasn’t. It was a private meeting. And by the way, that happens a lot, so if there’s something wrong with it, we’ve been doing it wrong for 50 years.”
The town’s next election is April 3, when the seats held by Samples, Pellegrino and Courtney will be up for re-election.