The situation arose in Eutawville but leaders in the eastern Orangeburg County town are not alone in conducting business in ways that do not comply with the state’s laws on open government. Failure to follow the S.C. Freedom of Information Act is frequently an issue with local governments.
As reported by The Santee Striper and Holly Hill Observer, the newspaper’s News Editor Lee Hendren went to an unannounced Aug. 22 meeting of Eutawville Town Council during which discussions pertained to such key issues as a proposal to give town employees a pay increase and the police department budget. He reported on what took place and inquired why his newspapers, other media and the public were not notified of the meeting as required by the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
Mayor Brandon Weatherford said he notified council members by text message the day before that a meeting would be held. According to Hendren’s reporting, he acknowledged not notifying the media.
“Call the Municipal Association and tell them to come slap me on the hand that I didn’t do the right thing,” the mayor reportedly said.
The response is puzzling in that he and other municipal officials around the state have a great resource in the municipal association – which trains elected officials on legal aspects of holding their positions. One is abiding by open government requirements in the SCFOIA.
Regarding notices of meetings, SCFOIA is clear that the public, including media, must be notified.
• “All public bodies … must give written public notice of their regular meetings at the beginning of each calendar year. The notice must include the dates, times, and places of such meetings.
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• “Agenda, if any, for regularly scheduled meetings must be posted on a bulletin board at the office or the meeting place of the public body at least 24 hours prior to such meetings.
• “All public bodies must post on such bulletin board public notice for any called, special, or rescheduled meetings. Such notice must be posted as early as is practicable but not later than 24 hours before the meeting.”
• “Written public notice must include but need not be limited to posting a copy of the notice at the principal office of the public body holding the meeting or, if no such office exists, at the building in which the meeting is to be held.”
• “All public bodies shall notify persons or organizations, local news media, or such other news media as may request notification of the times, dates, places, and agenda of all public meetings, whether scheduled, rescheduled, or called, and the efforts made to comply with this requirement must be noted in the minutes of the meeting.”
In most instances of town council meetings, notices of public meetings come via email to the newspaper and the notice also is posted on a town’s website. A town clerk handles the duties.
Yet in the case of Eutawville, the clerk has been fired. No other explanation for the action was offered after an Aug. 23 closed session of council for which a stated purpose is required but was not given. Council returned from the private discussion and voted to terminate the clerk.
Ironically, the council could legally discuss the clerk’s employment in closed session, but stating that was the reason for the executive session was required.
Which brings up another issue about which councils in Eutawville and elsewhere should be aware: Actions taken in a meeting such as the unannounced one on Aug. 22 are potentially null and void, and are open to legal challenge. And actions taken, even by public vote on Aug. 23 to fire the clerk, are equally subject to challenge because the law on executive sessions was not followed. Further, under FOIA, the clerk had a right to have discussion of her employment conducted in public upon request.
The bigger picture is open government itself. Whether it’s a small town or big city, people have a right and need to know what their government officials are doing, how they are conducting the public’s business. When people don’t even know their elected officials are meeting to do said business, government of the people, by the people and for the people is at great risk.