County considering settlement; not giving up on Preston appeal

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By Stan Welch

Following a mixed bag of public comments and an extended executive session to receive legal advice, the Anderson County Council voted Thursday (May 9) to “split the baby” represented by the question of whether to appeal a recent unfavorable court ruling in the County’s suit against former administrator Joey Preston.

Faced with the decision of whether to appeal or accept the ruling, which would allow Preston to retain the $1.2 million severance package he was awarded in 2008, as well as awarding Preston several hundred thousand dollars in legal fees, Council found a middle ground; or at least some breathing room.

Following an hour long executive session, the Council voted to authorize the attorneys to file the motion to reconsider, thereby preserving the County’s legal position. They also voted to instruct the County’s attorney to begin exploring possible settlement terms with Preston’s attorneys as well.

The special called meeting was held to allow the Council time to approve filing a motion to reconsider, a procedural step that preserves the County’s ability to appeal in the future, should they choose to. The window for filing that motion was closing; hence the special meeting.

The meeting drew a number of people seldom seen in the Council chambers, as well as a good many familiar faces. The audience was clearly divided between those who are determined to recover the money given Preston by a lame duck Council in 2008, just weeks before his contract would have expired with no further compensation, and those who feel the County has spent enough on legal fees.

A number of people spoke on each side of the issue. To those familiar with the history of the case, there was a certain irony in the presence of some speakers. Cordes Seabrook, for example, spoke about how much money has been spent on lawsuits since the 2009 Council was installed. He failed to mention that he was a party to the first such lawsuit filed by Candy Kern Fuller on behalf of Seabrook, former Independent Mail publisher Fred Foster, Erick Bradshaw, and Michael and Doreen Montepara.

That lawsuit was filed to stop the County’s investigation into the Preston administration, and was quickly thrown out of court as having no grounds. Upon appeal, the S.C. Supreme Court strengthened the lower court’s ruling. Foster and Seabrooks bailed out of the case after the preliminary ruling that it was “patently absurd”.

An article in a local daily newspaper on the day of the meeting failed to distinguish the amounts spent by the County in defending multiple lawsuits filed against the County by Kern-Fuller, who also represents Preston, from money spent specifically on the Preston case. That point was repeatedly made by those supporting an appeal. The total amount mentioned was $2.8 million.

Two regular speakers, Mark Powell and Rick Freemantle, both from District Seven, spoke stridently in favor of the appeal, with Freemantle likening the failure to do so with the lack of opposition to the National Socialist Party in pre-war Germany. Powell made reference to the Jody Arias trial currently in the news, saying that the pursuit of justice can’t be restricted to a simple question of its cost.

Others speaking from less than objective viewpoints included Jeff Ricketson, former planning director under Preston, who also pleaded for fiscal responsibility in settling the case. Ricketson left the County’s employment in 2008.

Dr. Bob Austin perhaps took irony to the evening’s highest level, however, when he publicly blamed District Seven Councilwoman Cindy Wilson for what the court ruling described as a “toxic political environment” in Anderson County at the end of Preston’s tenure. He said that she became involved in politics because of the Beaverdam sewer project and had been out to get Preston ever since.

Austin demanded that Wilson apologize to the current Council “for hoodwinking them” into such a witch hunt. He then went on to say that Wilson should resign from the Council immediately.

Austin’s remarks came without the disclaimer that Wilson beat him handily on two occasions when he challenged for her seat, including the year she first was elected.

Dan Harvell, a long time ally of Wilson, spoke adamantly in her defense, saying that she had le d the charge in investigating Preston and his profligate ways, as well as the activities of his administration. He expounded at some length on what he clearly considered Austin’s hypocrisy.

Public comments continued for almost an hour before the Council voted to go into executive session to consider the matter.