County Discussion Skirts Law

WINNSBORO – Showing little regard for state open government laws, County Council veered completely off agenda Monday night to discuss and then vote on a letter of support for Fairfield Memorial Hospital in its endeavors to partner with a larger facility. The item was nowhere listed on Monday night’s agenda for the regular Council meeting.

Questioned about the abandonment of the agenda, Interim County Administrator Milton Pope said the letter was considered an “emergency item,” as the hospital’s consultants required the letter in order to present a proposal package this week to the Richland County healthcare facility considering the partnership. Questioned further, however, Pope admitted that he had been aware of the need for the letter as long ago as last Wednesday (May 7), when Council’s Hospital Committee met with the Fairfield Memorial Board of Directors to discuss the partnership process.

“The public is short-changed when Council discusses matters not on an agenda,” said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, and advocate for open government. “They can’t hear the debate or make comments without knowing an item is up for discussion.”

Rogers also noted that the S.C. Attorney General has said “emergency” exemptions to notice required in the Freedom of Information Act must relate to a time sensitive issue.

“If they knew of the letter in advance, it isn’t an emergency under the law,” Rogers said.

Read before Council by Pope, and signed by Chairman David Ferguson (District 5), the letter states, in part: “. . . I would like to offer support of the endeavors of Fairfield Memorial Hospital to affiliate with a larger facility in order to sustain its position in the county. We all know how important a hospital is to our community, not only for our residents but for the future development of our economy. Without a hospital, the county would not be able to recruit industries that provide jobs to our residents.. . .”

The letter also said the County’ long-range plan included the construction of a new hospital “within the next five to six years,” and stated that the County “would be willing to work with the new partner in fulfilling this goal for the county . . .” That detail raised questions from some Council members and sent Pope back to his office for a 15 minute recess to amend the letter.

“I agree we need to support the hospital, but I don’t think we need to put a time frame in there on building a new hospital,” Councilwoman Carolyn Robinson (District 2) said. “We don’t even start supposedly getting our first funds in from (the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station) reactor 2 until 2019. That would be pushing the next elected officials up against the wall in order to accomplish something in five or six years. I respectfully request we remove the number of years.”

Although the letter clearly stated that the County would only agree to “work with” any new partner in building a new facility, and did not commit the County to building a new facility entirely on its own, Councilman David Brown (District 7) said he was concerned that the County might get stuck with a huge construction bill, as well as a new facility that did more to help Richland County and less to help Fairfield County.

“What if this new partner wants us to build a $100 million hospital?” Brown asked. “If someone comes in here and wants us to build a showplace down on I-77, that would help northeast Richland County more so than Fairfield County at an unbelievable cost. Are we obligating ourselves to that?”

Pope said the intent of the letter was merely to show the County’s continuing support for the hospital, and not to lock the County into any construction agreements. Nevertheless, Ferguson asked Pope to remove the language. Following the brief recess, Council reconvened and voted unanimously to approve the letter.

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