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EDITORIAL: Public owed information from hospital

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Before the coronavirus, public bodies infrequently had large crowds at their meetings. Now that most sessions are being conducted virtually, attendance is equally sparse. While public officials are by law to do their business in open sessions, there is no mandate that people attend nor take the time to learn what officials are doing.

Things generally rock along with relatively little controversy about meetings until a particular issue raises public concern. Most often people learn about such an issue via the press, which is guaranteed the same access as the public under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act.

In fact, the role of the press in informing citizens about public bodies and their meetings and actions is specifically acknowledged in the FOIA, which mandates that public bodies inform any media so requesting of their meetings and agendas for said meetings. Such notice, which is to be a minimum of 24 hours in advance, allows the press to inform the public about meetings.

Answers sought after Regional Medical Center's CEO change

Recent actions by the board members of the publicly owned Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg have raised concerns among public and press about transparency in general and adherence to the FOIA specifically. At an Aug. 6 meeting, the trustees voted not to renew the contract of RMC Chief Executive Officer Charles Williams. The meeting was not covered by The Times and Democrat because the newspaper was not made aware of the session, this despite the fact that The T&D has been covering RMC trustee meetings for years and has been made aware of sessions per a request for notification dating back decades.

For its part, RMC says it provided the required notice of the meeting by posting on its website. As much as the hospital argues that it abided by the letter of the law, those beyond just the newspaper disagree.

The county councils of Orangeburg and Calhoun counties appoint RMC trustees. They have publicly expressed concern about the trustees’ actions regarding the CEO. And now citizens and physicians have joined in, demanding answers from the board.

Residents concerned about hospital, Orangeburg County Council says; chairman: County preparing ‘proper course of action’

They want more information from the Aug. 6 board meeting – answers that may have been forthcoming had the press and public been in attendance at the Aug. 6 board meeting. Yes, the trustees likely still would have gone into a legal closed session to discuss the specifics of the contract with Williams, but FOIA mandates that any action regarding the contract be held in public session with a public vote of the trustees. To date, RMC has refused to reveal details about the vote, despite T&D requests for the information.

Board Chairman the Rev. Dr. Caesar Richburg has defended the trustee actions, saying this past week of the Aug. 6 meeting: "There must be 24-hour posting of the meeting and that was done. No laws were violated. Protocol was completely followed. There was no secrecy about anything."

The protocol of notifying this newspaper and other media per the norm and the FOIA was not followed. And the press and public know it.

So now the board is under new pressure to provide information to the public. And FOIA gives people the legal right to the information.

UPDATED: RMC searching for new CEO Williams’ contract not renewed; plans to leave in Dec.

Orangeburg podiatrist Dr. Kevin Ray wrote in an Aug. 19 letter to the RMC board chairman: "It is the concern of the general public whether the RMC Board of Trustees is responsible, equitable and researched in its decision-making. … The county councils of Orangeburg and Calhoun are tasked with overseeing the BOT and the citizens of these counties are charged with holding the BOT and county councils accountable for the health and wealth of our primary provider of health care, Regional Medical Center.”

Ray’s letter includes a request under FOIA for the hospital to provide information, including all documents and communications related to non-renewal of Williams’ contract -- including the vote of individual board members. Ray is also requesting documents, special communications and minutes from meetings dating back to 2017 and through July 31 of this year.

And the letter includes the most basic request: access information (time, place, login, etc.) for in-person or virtual, regular or special board meetings.

Just as FOIA ensures that requesting media be notified of meetings, any citizen can request the same notification. Failure to provide it is a violation of the FOIA. And failure to comply with the open government law can lead to questions about the legality of a meeting itself and any actions taken therein.

Regional Medical Center CEO’s contract not renewed; hospital searching for new leader

The Regional Medical Center is a vital entity in The T&D Region. It is owned by the people of Orangeburg and Calhoun counties – and those people have a right to monitor the public officials overseeing the hospital and to receive information about their actions.

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