In the second of our three-day series on Atlantic Beach, Friday’s editorial takes a hard look at the practice of some Atlantic Beach leaders of frequently suing the town they also seek to represent – and how the cost of those suits fall back on other taxpayers. Those interested can also find links to some of the suits in question below the editorial:
“It wouldn’t float if John Rhodes sued Myrtle Beach. It wouldn’t float if Marylin Hatley sued North Myrtle Beach. It wouldn’t float if John Weaver or Steve Gosnell sued Horry County. But it floats in Atlantic Beach and nobody does anything about it.”
– Former Atlantic Beach Town Manager William Booker
The Prices likely had a pretty good Christmas this past year. In late November, Atlantic Beach Councilwoman Windy Price, the church she pastors and her husband, Darnell Price, all received settlements from lawsuits each had filed against the town. In all, the Prices were cut checks for $54,300.
It wasn’t the first time. Since 2007, the Prices and their church have received at least $81,300 stemming from lawsuits they’ve filed against the town. Windy Price is hardly the only town leader to use the tactic. Benny Webb, the current town manager and former police chief, has also sued the town in the past. And Mayor Retha Pierce received her own settlement check in November for $22,300. Pierce – among many others – has yet another suit pending against the town and a laundry list of its current and former council members and officials. The group is asking for $50 million to compensate for what they see as a far-reaching conspiracy “to bring about the demise of the town of Atlantic Beach.”
Meanwhile, the town has racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees defending the town against such suits. One case alone, settled at last for $8,000, cost more than $80,000 in defense attorney fees.
Where does all that money come from? You might be surprised. Most of it doesn’t come from Atlantic Beach. It could be coming from you.
The town has a tort policy with the state-run Insurance Reserve Fund that covers suits brought against it. For $14,208 a year, the fund takes care of the costs of all settlements and legal fees associated with defending the town. As long as Atlantic Beach continues to pay its premium, the cost of its many lawsuits do not fall on the town but are instead spread out among all of the state’s municipalities, counties and government agencies that are also IRF customers. That’s not every government in the state – Myrtle Beach, for instance, is self-insured – but the taxes of many South Carolinians go to their own city or county, which in turn use them to pay for coverage from the IRF, which in turn uses those premiums to help pay for Atlantic Beach’s lawsuits.
Let’s be clear. There’s nothing wrong with a citizen suing their government for redress of a wrong, and it can be a valid reaction to a grievance. Former Atlantic Beach resident Paul Curry, for instance, has filed suits to force the town to abide by the state’s Freedom of Information laws. And it was Curry who has been a consistent thorn in the side of the town leadership, using those same laws to turn up much of this information. But when a leader of a town has sued the same government they’ve also sworn to represent, it’s a moral dilemma at best. How can one be both plaintiff and defendant?
Pierce, for instance, has filed at least one suit against other town leaders while in office as mayor, and she filed another against the town while suspended by Gov. Mark Sanford.
To be fair to the Prices, some of their settlements came before Windy Price was a council member. And none of the suits was filed while Price was sitting on the council (although at least one was filed while she was disputing election results that ultimately gave her a seat). But the majority of the money has appeared in the past year, after Price was seated – making her a defendant in her own suits against the town – and after she and fellow Councilwoman Carolyn Cole – who also has a long-running suit pending against the town – helped remove the town’s attorney and install a new one who happened to be a friend of Cole’s.
It would be going too far to say that Price actively steered settlement money toward her own pocket. Council members do not make the final decision on whether to settle a suit or how much to settle it for. That decision is ultimately up to the Insurance Reserve Fund. But the IRF does weigh the advice of the town’s attorney, who can help determine whether a case is worthy of fighting or needs to be settled. And as soon as Price was seated, she became that town attorney’s employer, a position of some influence.
In most towns, it would be hard to justify leaders suing each other, suing the police force and suing various other town officials and commissioners. But that’s because most towns work. In Atlantic Beach, at least some latitude should be given, because a lawsuit could very well be the only successful method for effecting change.
Windy Price on Thursday defended her lawsuits, saying that they were an effort to fight back against a government that was violating her civil and religious rights.
Price and other town leaders filing many of these many suits, however, have done little to show that change is their real goal. Instead of asking for policy changes or new laws or modifications to town practices, the suits have petitioned the courts for monetary damages. Despite the profusion of accusations of fraud and mismanagement – one pending suit alone contains more than 200 allegations – the goal seems to be only money, not any sort of actual reform or transformation.
Almost all of the suits against the town in recent years have been handled by one attorney, William Gary White III of Columbia, who said Thursday that he got involved years ago through his long friendship with Darnell Price. White, who has been suspended multiple times by the S.C. Bar for misconduct, defended the practice of seeking only money in the suits, saying “the way you get change is you hit people in the pocketbook.”
With all deference to Mr. White, that’s true, but only if those getting hit in the pocketbook are the ones you want to change. In this case, it’s not Atlantic Beach that’s putting up the money. It’s taxpayers around the state.
Former Town Manager William Booker, for his part, fought many of these suits during his tenure, before he was summarily removed last July, a victim of the same upheaval that subsequently led to a new town attorney.
“If we continue to settle these lawsuits,” Booker said Thursday, “we can expect more lawsuits. … If they file a lawsuit and get 12, 15, 20,000 dollars, what’s to keep them from filing another one?”
It’s a good question.
Tomorrow: Paths forward for the town
Selected suits filed in recent years in Atlantic Beach: