A special Horry County Council meeting to consider the future of Myrtle Beach International Airport Director Bob Kemp broke down Wednesday when half the council members abruptly ended discussion and walked out.
They were frustrated when Kemp blocked a closed-door meeting on his employment by requesting all conversation about him remain public, a request that must be honored under state law.
Several council members' discontent with Kemp came to a boil when the county's new airport terminal project slowed to a crawl and costs ballooned from $228 million to an estimated $252 million.
The council has no power to oust Kemp, who has been with the county since 1997. Only County Administrator Danny Knight has the authority to hire or fire employees. Knight asked the council Tuesday to support Kemp and the airport project.
Kemp said airport staff and contractors are working to scale back costs and win federal grants that will get the terminal project back on course.
Tuesday's debate raised tempers, a rare occurrence on County Council.
"I would hope that we could maintain ourselves in a dignified manner. ... I do not desire to rupture things that we have a hard time putting back together," said Councilman Marion Foxworth, who asked for the closed-door executive session.
A private discussion about Kemp was held in January during the county's budget retreat. Councilman Mark Lazarus attempted to call another executive session earlier this month but was blocked by Council Chairwoman Liz Gilland.
Gilland attempted to turn Tuesday's meeting into a question-and-answer session with county staff and avoid Foxworth's request for a private discussion.
"You want to do it in the back room under the cover of darkness, and you have always been opposed to that," Gilland said.
She compared the debate over private discussions of Kemp to the Conway City Council's firing Monday of its administrator and the resignation of the city's finance director.
The city refused to make information on the personnel decisions public.
"If the council has concerns about the airport, what is wrong with talking about it out here in the open so everyone can understand what they are?" Councilman Harold Worley asked.
Foxworth never got a vote on his motion for an executive session, despite support from about six other council members, including Councilman Mark Lazarus.
"I believe a vote on this would be contrary to the law and this should remain public," County Attorney John Weaver said.
Typically, government personnel matters are discussed in private, but any employee can request that all discussions be made in public, Weaver said.
Kemp, who was in attendance, had made the request to the county before the special council meeting, he said.
"If the subject of Mr. Kemp comes up in executive session, it is a violation of the law and the meeting must be terminated immediately," Weaver said.
Lazarus called to adjourn after the vote on the executive session was blocked.
Six members voted to end the meeting about 20 minutes after it started.
They were Howard Barnard, Mike Ryan, Marion Foxworth, Carl Schwartzkopf and Paul Prince.
Gilland and four other members stayed behind to hold an informal meeting with Kemp and airport staff over the troubled terminal project.
The new facility is needed to accommodate growth at the airport, but the cost has continued to grow while funding remains scant.
"We won't get the terminal done with people walking out," Worley said. "... I don't do that. I stay and fight, and that's what they should do."
Kemp was hired in November 1997 to replace former director Pete Winters, who resigned from the position after the airport ran $1.58 million into the red, according to the county's airport income records.
Before being hired, he was the director of the New Hanover International Airport in Wilmington, N.C., for eight years and director of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport in Pennsylvania.