County Council removes EDC board members; SLED opens investigation

Barnwell County Council removed all members of a county board from their appointments during a special-called meeting Friday, Dec. 20, and gave the county's attorney permission to do whatever is necessary to get back county land, money and other assets given away by the board's members -- and state law enforcement has opened an investigation into the situation.

Council passed two resolutions after a closed session with county attorney J.D. Mosteller, who informed council members of their options regarding the situation with the Barnwell County Economic Development Commission and Corporation.

The first resolution, which was written during the meeting, removes six voting members from the Barnwell County Economic Development Commission board -- created by county council in the late 1980s.

Board members booted off were: Chairman Pete Grady, Billy Johnson, Loretta Atkinson, Jim Latham, Janet Muldrow and Jeff Sandifer. Williston Mayor Jason Stapleton was previously on the board, but county council accepted his resignation letter, dated Dec. 2, during a regular meeting Dec. 10. There are seven seats on the board, which oversees the corporation's business.

Pete Grady was also the corporation's president, but the resolution elminated him from that position.

Assets handed over

On Dec. 16, documents were filed with the county's clerk of court office deeding property managed by the EDC within the towns of Williston, Blackville and the city of Barnwell to those respective municipalities. Another property, near the county airport, was given to the South Georgia Tissue company. The company was supposed to build a plant on the land, but the project never got rolling.

The documents are all signed by Pete Grady. Board member Loretta Atkinson signed the deeds as a witness.

The EDC board members held a meeting Dec. 4 where they voted unanimously to give the properties away. Members also voted to give the EDC's "cash assets" to Barnwell City, Blackville and Williston - divided equally among the three.

The meeting's minutes state Jason Stapleton and Jim Latham were not at the meeting, but the other five voting members were.

Stapleton, Blackville Mayor Mike Beasley and Barnwell City Administrator John Zawacki each confirmed their respective town received a $90,000 check from the EDC, and the check was deposited into each municipality's bank account. Each official said the check was deposited in good faith and there are, as of now, no plans to do anything with the money.

Stapleton said he wrote his resignation letter and mailed it after attending a Dec. 2 EDC board meeting. During the meeting, Stapleton said, board members went into closed session. He said he had "strong concerns" about what was said in closed session and decided to resign from the board.

Marty Martin was the EDC's executive director and had an assistant director, Sonja Hiers. But during the Dec. 4 meeting, board members voted to fire Martin and Hiers - both were at the meeting - and then voted to re-hire them as "independent contractors."

The county paid Martin and Hiers for their work, but was reimbursed via fees the EDC collects. The EDC has been, for years, effectively self-sufficient.

Grady told the The People-Sentinel the EDC had $14 million in assets.

The Aftermath

County council members say they were unaware of the EDC's actions until Dec. 17 and 18 when a People-Sentinel reporter called them asking about the situation.

At county council's meeting Dec. 20, Council approved a second resolution stating the actions taken by the commission were never approved by county council and are unlawful. The resolution asks that "any entity or person" who received assets from the EDC reject the "gift" and restore the assets to Barnwell County.

The county ordinance governing the Economic Development Commission says county council must approve any plan the EDC has to give away assets it manages. But as of Friday morning, council did not have a copy of the charter governing the Economic Development Corporation and is unclear about what powers, if any, the corporation has to give away land and assets.

The resolutions authorize the county's attorney to take all necessary legal action, including taking control of EDC bank accounts, computers, offices and property, to get the assets back in the county's hands.

Council member Lowell Jowers suggested handing the case over to the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate, but council did not vote on whether to do that.

A person, who didn't give a name, called the The People-Sentinel Friday and said the Barnwell County Sheriff's Office along with SLED had been asked to investigate the situation.

SLED spokesperson Kathryn Richardson said, "We have received that request and are opening an investigation."

Sheriff Ed Carroll said his office is not investigating the situation. He said any investigation would have to be handled by SLED.

The councils for Blackville, Williston and Barnwell City each held meetings Wednesday, Dec. 18, and were briefed by their attorneys on the situation. None of the councils took any action during the meetings.

Beasley said the three mayors have asked to meet with the government committee of Barnwell County Council. Houston and council members Keith Sloan and David Kenner are on that committee. No date has been set for the meeting.

The events stem from a long-running dispute between the EDC and the SouthernCarolina Alliance with county council in the middle. For years, there has been a lack of cooperation between the EDC and the SCA - an organization focused on economic growth in a six-county region. Recently, council had been contemplating giving SCA authority over the EDC properties and having Martin manage the properties under the guidance of SCA.