Law? What Law?

Laws, rules and regulations are not always easy to follow. There are all sorts of prohibitions on the books that, unless one devoted significant time researching them, one would not know they exist – washing your mule on Sunday, for example, or keeping squirrels for gambling purposes or when and where to publicly flog one’s spouse. One cannot be realistically expected to keep up with every minor infraction, and thus sometimes even a law-abiding citizen may unintentionally commit one misdemeanor or another.

There are other, more serious laws on the books here in this state, laws that set forth strict guidelines on how public bodies do business. These laws, found collectively under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), are designed to make sure the public’s business is conducted as openly as possible. As public bodies are regularly apprised of these laws both by the local media and by the various associations to which these bodies belong, there exists absolutely no excuse for these bodies to operate and conduct the public’s business in any way other than complete and total compliance. And yet, in recent weeks we have seen three of our local public entities disregard those laws and revert to the sort of back-room secret politics that the FOIA was specifically designed to eliminate.

Three weeks ago, Fairfield County Council, in the middle of a public meeting, added an agenda item and voted on that item without a single voice of protest raised from any of the seven members. The FOIA is quite clear on public bodies setting agendas no later than 24 hours prior to a meeting, and in June of 2012 the S.C. Court of Appeals removed all doubt about whether or not an agenda can be amended during a meeting (Lambries v. Saluda County Council, et. al.; opinion # 4989).

The Court said, in part, “[T]o allow an amendment of the agenda regarding substantive public matters undercuts the purpose of the notice requirement. . . .”

In other words, it may not be done. But that ruling, which was provided to the Interim County Administrator just last February, apparently troubles the Fairfield County Council not in the least. The Administrator’s argument that the item – a letter of support for the local hospital – was an “emergency item” that required Council’s immediate attention fails to hold any more water than the Lusitania, considering the Administrator had been aware of the letter for at least four days prior to the meeting. For a Council currently battling a public image problem, actions like skirting the FOIA only compound the perception that business is being conducted with complete disregard for public input, adding fuel to the flames of the torches being carried by Council’s most vocal critics.

Also three weeks ago, the LongCreek Plantation area in Blythewood experienced a rash of car break-ins. Our readers wouldn’t know about that, however, because the Richland County Sheriff’s Department was apparently too busy to provide us with the incident reports. The RCSD did send out a press release, but a press release lacking details that could have been helpful to the public. This newspaper is absolutely willing to assist the RCSD in their pursuits, and we are willing to do so with news stories containing all the necessary details pertinent to an incident. We will not, however, act as the RCSD’s local newsletter, reprinting memos and press releases verbatim with no questions asked.

This is not the first time the RCSD has been reluctant to provide the media with reports, and reminding them once more that the FOIA is quite clear that reports must be provided immediately upon request, without any waiting period will probably have the same effect as before – that is to say, no effect at all. Perhaps the public doesn’t really care to know which neighborhoods are being targeted by criminals. Perhaps the public doesn’t want to be alerted to crimes in their back yard. Perhaps the public doesn’t want to be on the lookout for potential suspects. If so, then by all means the public should continue to support the existing power structure in the RCSD. If, on the other hand, the public does care about any of these things, they should keep that in mind the next time certain elected law enforcement officials ask for their vote.

Not to be outdone, Blythewood Town Council last week voted on a pair of items that were not on the agenda as action items. Indeed, one of the items – to shell out $1,000 of hospitality tax money – was not even on the agenda at all. That this money was going to what one might consider a good and decent cause (and it was) is not the issue. The obvious point is that the public might have wanted to know about it, and they also might have wanted to know why the organization that received these funds was not required, as other organizations are, to formally apply for the funds. The former item, to host a local leadership meeting with members of our local governing bodies, was listed as a presentation, but not as an action item to be voted on. Council voted on it nevertheless, and to add insult to injury, they did so with the blessing of their attorney/Interim Administrator.

While a council of lay people may possibly, occasionally be able to fall back on the excuse of ignorance of the law, an attorney – someone who presumably attended law school and obtained a law degree – is, on the other hand, expected to be versed in the law. And as acting town administrator, the one law with which he should be most familiar is the law governing public bodies and public meetings.

Ours is a participatory government, one that works best when more people participate. When items are snuck into agendas at the last minute, when a council doesn’t even bother to sneak in an item to the agenda before voting on it and when police departments withhold reports from the public, our governments and their agencies have failed us. They have ceased to serve the public whom they ostensibly represent and have begun instead to serve themselves.