By Stan Welch
In a split vote Tuesday night, a deeply divided Anderson County Council decided to pursue its appeals in its case against former county administrator Joey Preston all the way to the state Supreme Court.
The decision came after a fractured and fractious session, which began with Councilwoman Gracie Floyd challenging the presence of the resolution to pursue the appealsono the agenda. She stunned the crowd when she challenged Councilwoman Cindy Wilson’s right to place the item on the agenda, citing portions of the ruling to be appealed; sections which disqualified the votes of Wilson and former Councilman Bob Waldrep because they were being sued by Preston at the time.
Floyd’s claim of conflict of interest was especially shocking, since she was on the prevailing side of the vote to award Preston a severance package of $1.14 million just weeks before his contract would have simply expired.
She is currently a party to a lawsuit brought by District Seven resident Rick Freemantle, naming her both in her official role and as an individual. Her presence in a number of executive sessions during which Council has reviewed its legal position in the case has been questioned by many.
Immediately following the installation of the newly elected County Council in January of 2009, Floyd introduced an Easley attorney, Candy Kern-Fuller, as her personal attorney and called her to the podium to offer a legal opinion on a county matter. Within a few months, Kern-Fuller had filed several lawsuits against the County. Floyd was allowed to sit in on strategy sessions related to those cases. Kern-Fuller is also a member of Preston’s legal team in the lawsuit with the County.
Following Floyd’s challenge to Wilson’s agenda item Tuesday night, Chairman Francis Crowder recessed the meeting for several minutes while he conferred with the county attorney. Upon reconvening, he declined to honor Floyd’s challenge and left the agenda as published.
For the next forty five minutes, one citizen after another came to the microphone and spoke for or against the appeals. During a portion of the agenda usually reserved for Floyd, she resumed her attack on Wilson , and ended up vowing that the Council “won’t shut me up. It won’t happen. If you won’t let me talk in here, I’ll stand on the street corner and talk.”
Eventually, the Council moved on to other business and gave various approvals to incentives designed to retain a number of business expansions in the county. The five projects, all code named at this stage of the process, would total capital investments of $25.5 million, and would create an additional 220 jobs, while retaining another 250 existing jobs related to the companies.
Then came the resolution. Councilwoman Cindy Wilson made her case for continuing the appeals, playing excerpts from a Supreme Court hearing on the Freemantle case last year. During that hearing several Supreme Court Justices remarked that the FOIA law was clearly violated, and that the severance agreement was clearly an attempt to “pay off their buddy”, according to Chief Justice Jean Toal.
She chided both Council members and the public for accepting the accounts of events in the Anderson Independent Mail as being accurate or thorough. “How can you trust a paper that won’t give it to you straight, or in full?”
Councilman Tom Allen presented his arguments against continuing the appeals, pointing out that an extensive investigation had found nothing illegal in Preston’s administration of the County.
“There was plenty that was wrong, but nothing illegal was found. I just don’t think Jean Toal’s casual remarks will translate into a formal ruling” said Allen. “I think we’re grasping at straws.”
Floyd moved to extend the time for discussion of the resolution, but a majority voted against that, forcing a vote on the resolution. Council members Allen, Floyd and Waters voted to drop the appeals, while Wilson, Moore and Dunn voted to follow it to the end. Chairman Crowder then broke the tie, and voted to pursue the appeals.