Pine Ridge, SC (Paul Kirby) – Several Town of Pine Ridge officials are now saying the citizens who were at a specially called town meeting on September 19th didn’t hear what they thought they heard regarding the resignation of Town Administrator Viki Miller. Also, Miller, who started crying that night immediately after the mayor was thought to have said the town’s governing body had accepted her resignation, has now sent a message to a friend that is directly quoted as saying that the “Media did not accurately report the meeting. Council did not accept my resignation.” What makes this confusing are statements from the several elected town officials and messages from employees like this one from Miller. In it she said, “My administrative committee has met with me in order to come up with a potential plan in hopes of keeping me. Prayerfully, the outcome will be the best for all.” Why would they need a plan to keep her if they never accepted her resignation? Confusing, to say the least! The majority of the people who were at the meeting don’t question Miller staying or if it was good for the town or not, they question why someone with the town’s leadership wouldn’t just come out and said, “We all changed our minds and allowed her to stay,” or even that the administrative committee worked something out and she is once again the town's administrator.
During the special meeting on September 19th it appeared as if the mayor and the council came out of executive session, then, it sounded as if the mayor said that the council was accepting Miller’s resignation after the body couldn’t reach an agreement on another personnel matter that had apparently been before them in executive session. Mayor Wells had a single piece of paper in his hand he slid across the table that most in attendance say they thought was Miller’s written resignation. The same people, contacted for clarity again the following week, say that’s when Miller started to cry, and they understood she had resigned from her post.
One of the people in the room was long-time Pine Ridge area businessman Rock Lucas of the Charwood Country Club. When contacted by phone, Lucas said that he was under the impression he had heard Mayor Wells say that Miller had resigned and that the council was accepting that resignation that night. He even pointed out that he made remarks about her leaving while he was at the podium speaking during citizen comments. He said he had many interactions with Miller, some good and some bad, but he regretted see she was leaving. Lucas’ comments at the podium also included a call for leadership from the elected officials since things have become somewhat surreal in Pine Ridge over the past 6 months or more.
Another citizen who also apparently misheard according to the town’s leaders, was Mrs. Jessie Sease of Arborgate. In a message between the editor of The Ledger’s and Sease about that night, Sease was asked if she had heard Mayor Wells accept the resignation of Miller on behalf of himself and the council. To that she flatly answered, “Yes I did. That’s what I heard; Hence her crying in corner and everyone shocked by it.” Sease also said she felt confused about why it was so evident to so many in attendance that the crowd thought Miller had resigned but none of the elected leadership ever realized there had been a misunderstanding and tried to do anything to clarify it that night.
Mike Brown, another person who was at the meeting, said Friday, “There didn’t seem to be any question that night what was happening or what we heard. Viki Miller resigned, the mayor said that the council had accepted it, and that’s what we all heard and reacted to.” Brown went on to say that Councilmember Beth Spires-Sturkie stormed out of the meeting as if she was angry after it adjourned, but several of the other members of the leadership milled around and talked. “It was really obvious that most everyone in the room thought she had resigned, and they had accepted. If that didn’t happen, why didn’t they say something to clear it up right then? It just doesn’t make sense!”
More citizens that were contacted for this article continued along the same line. One, a regular attendee at the area’s Senior Citizen Center, took to the podium immediately after the mayor opened the floor for public comments and said she would hate to see Miller go, but that’s certainly what she heard, Miller had resigned and resignation had been accepted.
Gina Henderson, wife of a local pastor and resident of Pine Ridge, said she not only heard what everyone else thought they heard in the meeting, she spoke with several councilmembers face-to-face the next week when it was reported that Miller had taken a few days off and then was back at her desk at the town hall. Henderson said in a telephone interview, “Several of the members of that council said that the mayor agreed to let Miller return and rescind her resignation without actually getting their consent; They told me Robert Wells alone allowed her to return.” Henderson said that she was becoming increasingly disappointed in the leadership of the town. “I didn’t always agree with everything that went on in the past, but it seems as if our little town is coming apart and some leaders think it’s okay while other seem oblivious to what’s going on or how the citizens feel.”
Pine Ridge is classified as a strong council form of government in South Carolina. This means that the mayor has no more power than any member of the council. These “ceremonial” mayors can be assigned extra duties by town ordinance like setting meeting agendas, but we were unable to find a Pine Ridge ordinance that would allow the mayor to rescind an employee’s resignation without the agreement of the rest of the council while researching this article.
To clarify, most people that The Ledger’s staff spoke with were okay with the fact that Miller was allowed to keep her job. Training an employee like Miller is expensive and time consuming. You can’t just hire a secretary for the town, as the demands of following government rules are complex. Even The Ledger’s management agreed that Miller seemed very efficient in the position and appeared to be very good at what she does.
One councilmember that The Ledger staff spoke to by telephone said that he thought maybe it was a miscommunication. He thought that the mayor may have said something in his quick statement that made people think that the council had accepted Miller’s resignation. That councilmember said if there was a misunderstanding, there should be a tape recording of the meeting that would clear that up. That's true. The meeting was supposed to be taped and the mayor asked several people who spoke to step to the podium so they could be heard on the tape. The citizens just seem to be wondering why the town wouldn’t release a statement that cleared the whole mess up instead of making someone go get the tape and listen to it. It appears as if the town thinks it’s the community’s responsibility to work to clear up the misunderstanding and the community thinks that should be done by the town; A classic standoff that breeds miscommunications.
With all five councilmembers sitting there at the front of the room, with Miller sitting over in the corner crying suddenly, with a long line of people coming to the podium and publicly lamenting Miller’s departure, none of the council seemed to pick up on the fact that the crowd had misheard or misunderstood what was said. None said anything like, “Wait, maybe someone misunderstood what the mayor said.” As crowds milled around after the meeting with everyone in shock, not one of the leaders of the town recognized there had been a huge misunderstanding? How did that happen?
Often, when it’s pointed out that we at The Ledger have goofed, and we do, we have just gone back and changed the story to make it right. With digital media, that can be done if someone, anyone, had called and said, “I don’t think that’s what we meant”, or, “Somehow there’s been a misunderstanding we’d like to clear up.” We’ve also written new stories to set the record straight several times.
Pastor Gene Henderson, a resident of Pine Ridge, said Friday, “More than 95% of what The Ledger has written about Pine Ridge has been positive. Now, when The Ledger has reported on the turmoil and the disarray that seems to be occurring, some of the town’s leaders don’t like that. The Ledger has a duty to keep the community informed about what’s happening, good or bad. We turn to The Ledger for our news. If there was a miscommunication, someone should have picked up the phone and called Paul Kirby and set things straight. He'd have done anything he could to help straighten it out.”
Another Pine Ridge town councilmember said in a telephone interview with The Ledger that the town was often trapped by rules that govern executive sessions and personnel matters. Certainly, what goes on in an executive session must stay there. When it comes to personnel matters, the town shouldn’t speak of an employee’s discipline openly, their pay, or contract terms unless state law say they need to, or any other sensitive matters about the employee’s relationship with the employer. Those rules don’t prevent saying, "We really have a misunderstanding here and this is what we did about it." Maybe having a called meeting to clear the air or release a very open, honest statement saying we’ve changed our minds and here’s why could help.
Councilman Daniel Davis said Friday that there was no need to have a special meeting to allow Pine Ridge residents to come, ask questions, and get a clearer picture of what was going on at the town hall. He said that if they (the citizens) wanted to hear what was going on, they could attend the regular monthly meetings. Davis did say he honestly didn’t do social media and had no idea what people were saying about the small town on the internet. As of Friday night, almost 100% of the comments on a popular social media site regarding Pine Ridge, the situation with the administrator, and it’s police chief and that department's lieutenant resigning were negative. This is another point of contention the community is in an uproar over.
Whatever’s going on in Pine Ridge, it does have a lot of people confused. Many people say they’re sad that so many people from other areas are laughing about their town. They’re saying they’re sorry they’ve lost their police department again, something Davis thought was a snap decision by the chief and lieutenant, not something they had been thinking about over a week. Davis said the police chief should have come to him or another councilmember if he had a complaint.
The police officers that resigned Thursday aren't the only ones that have complained about the mayor and what they describe as micro-managing that department. In preparing for this article, The Ledger's staff has talked to many people. If one employee complains, it might be a disgruntled employee with a bone to pick. If many begin to complain, if elected officials from other town's say Pine Ridge's mayor talked early on about how he planned to clean house at the PD and manage it in a more "hands-on" fashion, there may be an issue there.
At this point in time, Pine Ridge the community is still a wonderful little town; however, its government seems to be in disarray. The people are confused about how things are being run. Public perception is important and right now, the public perception of Pine Ridge seems to be at an all time low. The mayor and council have the ability to repair that. Maybe someone could open up their doors, allow the leadership and citizens to just sit down and talk, and clear the air. If what happened at the meeting was misheard or misunderstood, that would be easy to fix. If accepting Miller’s resignation was a mistake, that’d be easy enough to say. If something is wrong at the Pine Ridge Police Department, maybe a true and honest exit interview with some former employees by a councilmember that isn't a member of the committee that oversees that department might be enlightening. Maybe just getting together and talking, answering the questions you could, saying we can't talk about that one, all while being respectful to the community and its elected leaders would heal a lot of wounds that seem to be festering. It's just a suggestion.