BAMBERG – A group of Bamberg County residents challenged efforts to stop them from speaking during a recent county council meeting.
The Concerned Citizens of Bamberg County’s attorney said they have a right to be heard.
Attorney Paul W. Owen Jr. said, "If we're not heard here, we can certainly go to the court and bring a declaratory judgment action and let a judge make a decision as to whether or not we have that right. But you've elevated the atmosphere by removing us from the agenda, sending us a letter that's not based on law and denying us the right to have our grievances heard. ...
"It might not be the response we want. That happens. But eventually we are going to get the response we want whether we have to address it to council or in a court of law. We want to have your attention."
Council Chairman Trent Kinard said the county’s attorney would get with Owen and “we’ll do what we can to settle up with everybody and make everybody happy."
More than a dozen Bamberg County citizens spoke during the 3-1/2 hour Bamberg County Council meeting.
The Concerned Citizens of Bamberg County asked to be placed on the agenda prior to the start of the meeting. The county denied them because they didn’t give the required notice before the meeting’s agenda was developed.
But Councilman Clint Carter said, "I think they should be heard and not be trying to quiet them."
The Concerned Citizens had made an earlier request to be on the agenda, but council denied their request because the group had retained an attorney to represent it. Council assumed that the matter to be discussed would be of a legal nature, the details of which could not be discussed in open session during the council meeting.
The group has a petition with more than 1,000 signatures of citizens who are questioning the legality of County Administrator Joey Preston's contract and whether it complies with state law. Anderson-based Preston Consulting LLC, which is owned and operated by the administrator, provides administrative services for the county.
Kim Compton, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Bamberg County, asked "So what you're saying is because we had a lawyer, we can't be on the agenda?"
Kinard said, "Because it's a legal matter, we're assuming. That's what we're saying."
Compton said, "When we turned in the request to be on the agenda, we gave a copy of the petition that was going to be discussed. That was included. It's not like we didn't tell you what we were going to talk about, what our attorney was going to talk about."
"But you still had an attorney," said the chairman, who then referenced County Ordinance 1-13-8, which states: Any person who is retained by another person, group or organization for the purpose of promoting or opposing any matter before the County Council for compensation shall disclose the person(s), group(s) or organization(s) the retained person represents at the time of requesting to be heard, or will not be placed on the agenda.
Compton said that had been done, at which time Kinard said he wasn't going to read the ordinance anymore, but would give her a copy.
"According to that ordinance, our lawyer's never going to be able to be on that agenda?" Compton said.
Carter said, "That's what it sounds like."
County Attorney Richard Ness said, "That's what the ordinance says. That's the law."
Owen was able to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting after county resident Rhonda Brummel and several others gave their time to him.
Kinard, however, informed him that he could not speak about contractual matters.
"It's because if we do anything with Mr. Preston's contract, we'd have to go in executive session and I'd have to refer you to the attorney, which is Mr. Ness, to meet outside of this meeting if you'd like to discuss that," Kinard said.
Owen said, "I've seen your letter denying us a place on the agenda. Again, in terms of contractual matters, the Freedom of Information Act only excludes proposed contractual arrangements. We're talking about an existing contractual arrangement, or proposed sales and purchases of property. So an existing contractual matter would be within the Freedom of Information Act."
Owen said his issue was whether Preston's contract complies with state law.
"That was the issue that was on the petition I think many of you have seen," Owen said.
Kinard said he had not and drew comments from the audience which included, "You have seen it!" and "Wrong!"
"Have I seen a final copy of it?" the chairman said.
Brad Hudson, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Bamberg County, said, "You signed it!"
Kinard banged the gavel loudly and said, "We're going to allow one person to talk or we don't allow no one to talk. Now, we're not going to get into contests every single time this happens. Please. That's all I'm asking. Thank you very much."
Owen said the group should not have been denied a place on the agenda because the citizens have a constitutional right to petition their government if they have a grievance.
"Concerned Citizens of Bamberg County have petitioned the government of Bamberg County with their grievances. You’ve got a contractual matter. You've got a statute. The statute doesn't say anybody goes into an independent consulting contract. It says it shall employ. ... ‘Shall’ is basically (seen) in our law as a must," he said.
Kinard the hit the gavel and admonished Owen to not talk about a contractual matter.
"If you would like to discuss that, you would have to get with the county attorney ... and not out in open session. I mean, if you want to say about the group having their petitions, we'll take them into consideration. I appreciate it, that's what we should do, but when you get in contractual matters, I think we're open to a lawsuit or anything of that nature from Mr. Preston himself against Bamberg County," Kinard said.
Carter said, "We've already opened a lawsuit because we denied them" a spot on the agenda.
"We didn't deny them anything," Kinard said.
The crowd responded that he had.
Kinard then banged the gavel and said, "I'm not getting in no argument out here in the public."
Owen said the citizens were also concerned "the taxes and the debt that this county has incurred."
"They want to be heard, they want to be placed on the agenda. They're entitled to be placed on the agenda. ... Their grievance has not been taken up by the county council. ... Now, we've got over 1,000 people whose civil rights have basically been violated tonight. ... I don't know if y'all didn't pay attention in civics or history or what, but you've got to do better than this. You can't run this county by fiat. You have to take input from the public. They're the ones that put you in office," Owen said.
Melissa Quattlebaum told council she’d like to see more respect for citizens.
"I don't like the lack of respect that I'm seeing. I don't care what position a person holds around here. I don't like the lack of respect I'm seeing. It's uncalled for, it's not necessary," she said.
Larry Brummel referred to an earlier presentation from county Controller Gina Smith, who updated the council on the county's improved financial status since 2012.
"I've been to three meetings, and every one you start in 2012 and go through the whole thing every meeting. I know it now. Let's talk about what's going on now and save 50 minutes. Thank you," he said.
Brad Hudson referred to the Concerned Citizens of Bamberg County group's earlier request to be placed on the meeting agenda.
He said, "I've read your policy online and my comment on your policy would be to trash it. If you don't keep your policy, there's no use in having it. There is no reason for us to be denied being put on the agenda. Your letter was trash as well.
"You are obstructing the voice of the people, and you're going to be reminded of that when it's time to be re-elected. And some of you don't care because I know you've already been talking in the community (that) you're going to be gone after your term is up. But you still represent the people of Bamberg County."
Hudson also told Kinard that he did not appreciate the chairman contacting his employer with concerns about an earlier Freedom of Information Act request Hudson had made to the county. Kinard denied that he had done that.
Hudson was also displeased that the group was charged $38 an hour to have information related to an earlier FOIA request compiled.
"I think that you're against South Carolina policy. ... There's also a clause in there that says if it's for the greater good of the people of Bamberg County or the community, that it could be given for free. I think when you have 1,400 people sign a petition, that tells you that there's a lot of concerned citizens in Bamberg County," Hudson said.
He added, "I see that we're going to continue with the obstruction every week. Mr. Carter was fully in his right to ask for us to be put on the agenda. He had no other support from any other member sitting on council. We took notice of that as well, and we're going to remember that. You don't stand with the people when you don't stand for us to have an opinion and speak our mind."
Compton said, "We formally, legally and procedurally asked to be on the agenda and you, and I’m assuming under the encouragement of Mr. Preston, wiggled your way out of that since some of it was about him. It’s looking more and more, Trent, like you don’t want the citizens to be heard. You’re doing everything you can to quash our free speech. This makes it looks like you all are avoiding us for a reason, like you have something to protect, or something to hide."
She also asked for the meeting to be shown on the televisions outside in the hallway.
"I know y’all said that cost $4,500. That’s not true. I don’t believe that for one minute. My college son can do it in 15 minutes. We do it at church all the time. It’s not that hard,” she said.
Referring to an earlier report from County Treasurer Alice Johnson, she added, "The main thing I got from tonight’s meeting is that the county is over $400,000 in the hole for the month of February."
Betty Singleton said she has felt the tension at county council meetings and said that the entire county, including the council members, need prayer, particularly as it pertains to balancing its budget.
"He will teach us and show us how to be lenders instead of borrowers. I’m tired of borrowing, borrowing, borrowing and taxes and taxes and taxes, about to tax us to death," she said.
Ken Ahlin expressed his concern about what he considered the lack of adequate public hearings, particularly regarding a USDA loan application to provide for the renovation of the old county courthouse.
Joyce Beard said, "We can see the physical environment, how there is no businesses coming into Bamberg, how there is no hospital, how we had the highest unemployment rate and still be told that we have a good (credit) rating.
“That must be based upon some highly inflated figures of the assets of this county. You’re making it almost impossible for this county to grow and for people who live here. And there’s going to be a reckoning one day, and I don’t think you’re going to like the outcome of it."
Gerald Maynard said his 95-year-old mother should not have to worry about the lack of a grocery store in Bamberg and also expressed concern about county leadership.
"We have a consulting firm that’s our administrator. ... If I hire a consulting firm, I’m hiring a whole group of people that are busy trying to get ideas together to help my business go well. I don’t see that happening here. ... You don’t hire an electrician to do carpentry work. If you want an administrator, get an administrator, and then hire a consulting firm whose only job is to give you ideas and to move your business forward," Maynard said.
Councilwoman Sharon Hammond said, "We need to come up with some solutions together. I feel your pain."
She said council is working to lure industry to the county as it works to improve its financial condition.
Compton said, "We're not complaining. We have solutions, but you won't let our attorney talk."
Councilman Evert Comer Jr. said, "You all elected us to handle the business" and that the council would be working on its budget to see how it can be trimmed.