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Senate confirms Pawleys lawyer as inlet magistrate

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

John Benso, 60, a Wachesaw Plantation resident and Pawleys Island area attorney, was confirmed as Murrells Inlet’s new magistrate on Wednesday, just one day after he was announced as the nominee for the job.

The ease and speed with which he slid into the office is a huge contrast to the three-month battle fought by S.C. Sen. Ray Cleary’s original pick. Dave Jolliff, a former Horry County Police Department officer, was announced as Cleary’s nominee in December, but withdrew his candidacy in March after some inlet residents vehemently and vociferously opposed his suitability for the job.

Benso’s nomination was immediately greeted with significantly more enthusiasm.

Tom Swatzel, former Georgetown County Republican Party chairman, was one of Jolliff’s biggest opponents, but Benso has his support.

“I know John and I think he would make a good magistrate,” Swatzel said. “He’s certainly well qualified.”

Georgetown County Sheriff A. Lane Cribb issued a joint statement in March with Swatzel and four other local Republicans, calling on the governor to “swiftly reject” Jolliff as a nominee.

Cribb doesn’t know Benso well. “I think I’ve met him a couple of times,” he said. But has no objection to Benso as the inlet’s magistrate.

“I’m fine with it,” Cribb said. Cleary “went through the public process, and that’s good.”

One of the main complaints about Jolliff was that inlet residents weren’t given any input on his selection and weren’t told who the other applicants were. In selecting Benso, Cleary put together a selection committee to review applications and offer input to help him make his decision.

“We offered input here and there, but the decision was indeed Sen. Cleary’s,” said Whitney Hills, who was part of the committee.

She said she wasn’t aware Benso had been selected until after the announcement was made Tuesday, but she believes he’s a good choice. Hills is chairwoman of Murrells Inlet 2020 and Benso sits on the group’s board.

“I think he’s going to be superb,” she said. “I find John to be an extremely fair person and his legal back ground will obviously serve him well in this role.”

Hills “would not have been a big fan” of having someone with a law enforcement background appointed as magistrate, she said.

Richard Heath, a CPA; Theodore Russell of Drunken Jack’s; Lee Hewitt of Garden City Realty; Scott Joye, an attorney; and Jim Wilkie, a member of the Murrells Inlet 2020 advisory board, also sat on the committee.

The committee was a step in the right direction, according to Swatzel, also a member of the Murrells Inlet 2020 advisory board. However, he thinks the process should have been more open.

“The existence of the committee was surprising to me and many others in the community because its appointment was never made public,” he said.

He questions the process by which committee members were selected and whether their meetings should have been public.

He said he would also still like to know who else was considered for the job.

Cleary said he received applications from more than 20 “well-qualified individuals, including some attorneys, law enforcement professionals and successful business people.”

“Any one of these applicants probably could and would do a great job, but with [Benso’s] legal background and his ties to the community, I and the committee, feel extremely confident of his ability to serve the Inlet and the citizens of Georgetown County well,” Cleary said.

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“I’ve had more than one person tell me they thought I would make a good judge,” Benso said.

When he was in law school at the University of South Carolina, his professors said he needed to be more focused on advocating for his clients.

“My problem, in their eyes, was that I tended to see both sides of the issue,” Benso said. But what might have been a problem for a young attorney could serve Benso well in his future role, and he’s eager to put it to the test. He will close his law practice, he said, but hasn’t decided when.

A native of Michigan, Benso has 30 years of experience as an attorney, working in the areas of business and real estate law. He has practiced law in the Pawleys Island area since 1993 and opened the Law Offices of John Chappel Benso, P.A., about five years ago.

He also practiced law in Charleston, Hilton Head and Columbia before moving to Georgetown County and is husband to Helen Benso, vice president of marketing at Brookgreen Gardens.

Benso will succeed retiring Judge Bill Moeller, 73, and said he’s honored by Cleary and the selection committee for their faith in him and wants to acknowledge Moeller for his service over the years.

“I’m excited because this is a new challenge, but I’m also nervous, because it will require development of a fairly new skill set for me,” he said.

However, developing those skills isn’t something he’s too worried about, he added.

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