County Votes to Abolish Committees

Fairfield – After nearly an hour of discussion, County Council Tuesday night passed their amended bylaws in two parts. The first part, to do away with Council’s long-standing practice of using committee meetings to hash through important issues and replace them with open work session, drew the protest of Council members David brown (District 7) and Carolyn Robinson (District 2).

“I am very distraught over the fact that we are doing away with standing committees and committees of council,” Brown said. “This is taking council more and more out of the communication with their constituency and taking the debate out. I think we’re kind of disenfranchising about 90 percent of the people in the county by not having committee meetings. This whole document just puts more and more emphasis on the chairman making decisions and administrator making decisions and taking us out of it. I just don’t think that’s what government should be and I hate to be a part of it. This whole document, in my opinion, is just throwing our weight around and disenfranchising the people.”

Brown said he felt the committee process made people feel more at ease with standing up and speaking their minds, out of view of the media and the larger crowds in attendance at regular meetings. Brown also said he had a problem with the new provision that prevents people from speaking in work sessions without permission from the Council Chairman. Committee meetings, Brown said, are more heavily attended than work sessions, but Vice Chairman Dwayne Perry (District 1) disagreed. Perry said he has seen many more people attend work sessions than committee meetings, and, he added, work sessions are a more open forum.

“I remember times when I was not on council and I had the opportunity to sit out here in the audience and saw how business was constructed as a constituent and I did not feel that things were transparent and people were being forthright,” Perry said. “I was blind-sided as a constituent many times sitting out there in the audience. Now we’re trying to be more transparent, giving our constituents an opportunity to come out and sit in the audience if they choose. I do think the work session process has been effective.”

Robinson said government at the state and federal level operates on the committee system, and that the vast majority of counties in South Carolina did as well. She also said that committees keep Council abreast of important issues.

“The committee system works well when the administrator hands down documents that need to be discussed and the chair then takes it and sends it to the appropriate committee,” Robinson said. “Too often we have things thrown at us at the last minute. So many things come down now that we never even hear about because it’s already passed out. I think what this entire bill is going to do is discard us as a council member and leave it up to one man who’s not elected by county wide voters and the administrator.”

“I don’t know if I would use the federal government or the state government as an example of how things work,” Perry said. “The gridlock that I’ve seen over the last five or six years is unbelievable on both sides of the aisle. I think, unless I’ve lost count here, I don’t see how an administrator or a chairman can make decisions for this council. There are seven members on this council, we all have a vote. We talked about the changes in this document ad nauseam Wednesday night. I personally have seen this document because I know we took three hours to discuss it last Wednesday night. The information does come down, I think we do have an opportunity to review information, whether it comes down from our administrator or if it’s shared with us on council.”

Perry also said that work sessions are no different from committee meetings in their treatment of public comment. Both methods require permission from the chairman, he said.

“I don’t think it’s about us trying to exclude someone,” Perry said. “I think it’s just the opposite. We’re trying to bring more people in.”

Kamau Marcharia (District 4) said he agreed that people were more comfortable speaking before the smaller committees than before full council in work sessions. In his experience, Marcharia said, committees have worked and worked well.

“I was chairman of the facilities and transportation committee for several years,” Marcharia said. “We have had meetings with constituency that had genuine questions to ask. That committee gave me the chance to go back and reassess my research. I find people are definitely more comfortable before three people than whole council. All the years I’ve been here, it’s worked for me.”

But Chairman David Ferguson (District 5) said the goal of changing over to a work session system was to ensure that all Council members had access to the same information, and that it was not about wresting control away from the majority.

“I’ve sat here and I’ve learned quite a bit,” Ferguson said. “First of all, that Mr. (Phil) Hinely (County Administrator) and myself can run the county without the other six voters up here sitting on the bench. I didn’t realize I had that authority, but I must have since it came from a Council member.

“I think that everybody in here that comes and listens to these proceedings would rather sit out there and listen to the seven of us debate and vote in public and know that everything every council member siting up here knows is just what the others know,” Ferguson added. “I have council members sitting up here saying they can’t say what they want to say up here on this podium. No one’s ever told them they couldn’t say anything. This council has been very open. The years that I’ve been chairman on this council, it’s been very open. Nothing has been kept from anybody. Everybody knows the same thing I know as soon as I know it. I don’t know how much more transparent you can get. Some folks don’t like the way council is going now because they’re not in control of it. What you did 20 years ago doesn’t mean it was right or wrong, it only means it was what you did 20 years ago.”

Ultimately, the changes passed on a 4-3 vote, with Brown, Marcharia and Robinson voting against the amended bylaws. The second part of the bylaws passed as well, 5-2, with Brown and Robinson voting against.