Ridgeway Councilman wants vote rescinded; Mayor’s economic interest questioned

RIDGEWAY – After a controversial 3-1 vote by the Ridgeway Town Council on Dec. 14, 2017 to purchase the Cotton Yard from Norfolk-Southern Railroad for $73,000 plus an estimated $11,000 for associated costs, that vote is now under the microscope with the possibility of being rescinded.

That possibility was raised at the Jan. 11 council meeting when Mayor Charlene Herring called for approval of the Dec. 14 meeting minutes. Councilman Heath Cookendorfer, citing a potential economic interest on the part of Herring when she voted for the Cotton Yard purchase, called for those minutes to be tabled and for the Dec. 14 Cotton Yard vote to be rescinded and re-discussed at the Feb. 8 meeting.  Herring’s vote was one of the majority three votes for the purchase.

Cookendorfer, who voted against the purchase, said Herring’s home, The Ivy Veranda, which is directly across the street from the Cotton Yard, was registered as an event business with the S.C. Secretary of State in June, 2017. He made the argument that Herring’s event business depends on the Cotton Yard for parking, thus giving Herring an economic interest in the vote.

As he began his presentation to Council last week, Cookendorfer said he had contacted [Steve] Hamm, an attorney with the South Carolina Ethics Commission, who, “confirmed that, based on the information I provided him, that the motion [to approve the Cotton Yard purchase] included a vote that violated S.C. law, Section 8-13-700 which talks about someone voting that has a potential economic interest. Section A & B talks about a…”

Councilwoman Angela Harrison interrupted Cookendorfer, asking for a copy of the document.

Cookendorfer said he would give her one.

“Can I ask, what’s the conflict of interest?” Harrison asked, again interrupting.

“I’m getting ready to…” Cookendorfer said before being interrupted by Harrison a third time.

“Who has a conflict of interest?” Harrison demanded.

“I’m sorry, we’re…”

Harrison and Herring began talking over Cookendorfer.

“I’m getting ready to tell you…” Cookendorfer continued before being interrupted again.

“Well, we don’t need you to. I can read, so…” Harrison countered.

“Anyone who has a business can park there,” Herring interrupted.

“Right,” Cookendorf said. “If I can get through this, I’ll be more than happy to answer any questions.  Mr. Hamm asked me if the mayor had parking space for her business,” Cookendorfer said. “The answer was ‘No.’

“Yes, I do,” Herring interrupted.

“Do you have spaces for 40-50 cars?” Cookendorfer asked.

“Probably not 40-50,” Herring said.

Cookendorfer read from documents that he said were submitted to Hamm who, Cookendorfer noted, is a close friend of Herring’s. Herring acknowledged that he is.

Those documents contained two pieces of information Cookendorfer said supported his claim that Herring had an economic interest in the Cotton Yard vote:

1) an event advertisement from the Ivy Veranda Facebook page stating that, “Plenty of parking is available in the adjacent Cotton Yard,” and

2) a copy of a statement that Herring submitted to Council on Dec. 8, 2016, recusing herself from voting on an ordinance to rent portable restrooms for the Cotton Yard for a special town event, in which she cited her economic interest.

That recusal stated, in part, “I, Charlene Herring, Mayor of Ridgeway, recuse myself from voting because of conflict of interest. My husband and I are members of the Merchants Association.”

Cookendorfer said the Dec. 8, 2016 recusal set a precedent for Herring to recuse herself on the Dec. 14, 2017 Cotton Yard vote.

A brochure advertising The Ivy Veranda states that it is the “ideal place to host your intimate Southern style wedding reception.”

“He [Hamm] asked, ‘By purchasing that land, will it be used for her business and other businesses?‘  I said, ‘Yes.’”

“He then asked if anyone parks [in the Cotton Yard] currently. I said, ‘Yes,’” Cookendorf said.

“If Ridgeway ever decides to discontinue its [Cotton Yard] leasing agreement, then that could potentially affect parking spaces available for your business,” Cookendorfer said to Herring. “So, because it could affect parking for your business, it could affect your business,” Cokendorfer said. “This means there’s an economic interest.”

Cookendorfer said Hamm referred to S.C. Statute, Sec. 8-13-700 which states:

(A)         No public official…may knowingly use his official office…to obtain an economic interest for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated or a business with which he is associated.

(B)          No public official…may make, participate in making or in any way attempt to use his office…to influence a governmental decision in which he…is associated, or a business with which he is associated has an economic interest.

The statute continues with step–by-step details of how a public official with an economic interest should recuse him/herself.

“Again, this is something that he [Hamm] concluded from the same information I’m handing you. He [Hamm] recommends that we rescind the vote and bring it back up for discussion. You’re welcome to talk to him,” Cookendorf said. “We can ask Mr. Hamm for a written recommendation. In the meantime, we can talk about this in open session.”

“We’re not going to have this discussion, ok?” Harrison snapped. “The discussion will be, let’s call our attorney. We have legal advice for a reason, so let’s just take it from here.  We don’t need to rescind the motion,” Harrison repeated.

“We don’t need that parking,” Herring interrupted, “and I can take that out [of the advertising].”

“So you’re going to leave the motion and contact our attorney?” Cookendorf asked.

“Yes,” Harrison snapped again. “They’ll understand it.”

While Harrison, Herring and Porter fought on against tabling the Dec. 14 meeting minutes, in the end, Councilman Donald Prioleau made a motion to table them until the Feb. 8 meeting, and Council voted 5-0 to do so.

Harrison added, however, that she wanted to correct a line in the Dec. 14, 2017 minutes from, “Councilman Prioleau left for an emergency…” to “Councilman Prioleau ‘said’ (Harrison’s emphasis) he left for an emergency.”

Following the meeting, The Voice asked Herring if she had already signed the Cotton Yard contract, as authorized by Council on Dec. 14.

“Some of us have,” Herring answered after thinking about it for a few seconds.

However, contacted by email and phone, the other four council members, Harrison, Cookendorfer, Prioleau and Doug Porter told The Voice that none of them had signed the contract. That only the mayor was authorized to sign it.

The Voice emailed Herring last week, asking if she planned to contact the Ethics Commission about whether her business constituted an economic interest in the Cotton Yard vote or to only contact the Town government’s attorney for advice about the issue. At press time, Herring had not answered the email.

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