Bamberg County Council is under pressure from citizens on issues from the county administrator to taxation. Representatives of Concerned Citizens of Bamberg County regularly attend meetings to voice their concerns.
Recently, there was controversy regarding who could speak for the group at a public meeting, with the council chairman citing both the Freedom of Information Act, which is state law, and a local ordinance in limiting what was said.
Regarding FOIA, Trent Kinard said because the organization’s attorney had requested to be on the agenda, it was assumed the matter was a legal one. So that would send any discussion to closed session, he said.
Kinard also stated it was not appropriate to hear any discussion of the administrator’s contract in public session because contractual matters also are to be discussed in closed session.
Add a local ordinance that can be interpreted as prohibiting an attorney from speaking before council as an individual or representing someone and protests by those at the meeting were not surprising. And they were justified.
Governmental bodies are allowed to vote to enter a closed session for these reasons:
• Discussion of personnel matters such as hiring and firing, appointment, compensation, promotion, demotion and discipline.
• Discussion of negotiations about contractual matters such as sale or purchase of property, and receipt of legal advice where the advice relates to pending, threatened or potential legal claims.
• Discussion regarding security personnel and devices.
• Discussion of investigative proceedings regarding allegations of criminal misconduct.
• Discussion of matters relating to industrial development.
Bamberg County Council nor any other public body is under legal prohibition from considering these matters in public. When in doubt, public officials should do their business in public rather than enter a closed meeting. That is the principle of FOIA.
Public bodies once used the generic “receipt of legal advice” as a standard reason for entering closed sessions. But there is no such provision in FOIA. And as to an existing contract with the county administrator, its provisions including total compensation are a matter of public record open to any scrutiny.
Most importantly, a citizen who otherwise would not be heard in closed session can speak on any matter in public session. There is no liability risk for the citizen nor the public body in allowing public comment.
Ensuring the public is informed through access to government is a primary obligation of elected leaders, and open government is a guarantee backed by state law. As frustrating as being verbally attacked at public meetings is for public officials, they are under obligation to hear citizens at meetings within parameters regarding how many can speak and for how long.
The state’s open-government law is no tool to silence public comment. As the attorney for Concerned Citizens of Bamberg County said at the meeting: "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.”