Dog,2; RW Council,0.

Mayor: We were all of one accord in our Executive Sessions.

RIDGEWAY- In an attempt to explain away what council sources say were straw polls taken by Ridgeway Town Council in executive sessions in an attempt to prevent Vivian Case, the Town Clerk from bringing her service dog, Bella, to work, Mayor Charlene Herring called a special council meeting on Tuesday night.

There were only two items on the agenda, with no indication that either would be voted on. But that didn’t stop the vote.

The first item was listed as a ‘Review of an easement contract regarding the site of the new water tower.’ The second item, the one that was the draw for a large audience that evening, was listed as ‘Legal advice services regarding a personnel issue and compliance with FOIA and HIPPA.’ The item and the vote that followed and passed, left those in attendance scratching their heads.

Since January, according to Council sources who asked not to be identified, Town Council has taken straw polls in secret to authorize the mayor to oust Bella from Town Hall and again, when she returned with a service dog certificate, to have her crated at all times in the office and, finally, to hire an attorney to advice council regarding Bella.

The four-year old Rottweiler has come to work with Case since the dog was eight weeks old, holds certificates for three different levels of behavioral training and has passed the rigorous American Kennel Club ‘Canine Good Citizen’ test. According to citizen testimony during the last two Council meetings, the Rottweiler is a favorite with the residents.

According to Case and Council sources, there was no history of complaints or problems concerning Bell’s presence at Town Hall until last January when the mayor told Council that she had received a couple of complaints. Those complaints, however, according to Council sources, were not serious and are not documented. And no one has come out publicly with complaints.

Nevertheless, in April, the mayor engaged attorney Reginald Belcher, a certified specialist in labor and employment law with Turner Padget in Columbia, to advise Council.

“Council approved us to go this route (crating Bella). We’ve had full approval,” Herring told The Voice. But there are no records of a public vote or discussion concerning the dog or Case.

Reliable sources have told The Voice that Belcher’s invoices for his services are approaching $3,000 and mounting.

At the Tuesday night meeting and another Council meeting last week, citizens streamed to the podium during citizen comment time, defending and praising Bella and Case, but lodging numerous complaints against Council and the mayor for spending thousands of dollars for what the speakers consider a non-problem.

On Tuesday evening, Herring attempted to ameliorate Council’s previous secret votes and the hiring of Belcher to take on Bella and Case.

“This is our public vote for securing legal services regarding a personnel issue where we were all in one accord in our executive sessions,” Herring said, speaking slowly with special emphasis on ‘all in one accord.’

According to the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, it is illegal for council to make decisions or conduct straw polls behind closed doors in executive session. Section 30-4-70 (6) of the FOIA states, “The only actions that can be taken in executive sessions are to adjourn or return to public session. No informal polling about a course of action may be taken in executive session.”

Last week, Judge Thomas Russo ruled that Newberry County Council owed Columbia attorney Desa Ballard $13,708 in attorneys’ fees and cost for violating the South Carolina FOIA.

The county council repeatedly announced its reasons for executive sessions “in such a general way that the specific topic of the actual executive session was hidden…(and) the public had no way of knowing what was being discussed,” Russo wrote July 7.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Assoociation, said Thursday that the ruling sends a message to all public bodies, including city and county councils, school boards and zooning boards.

“That’s a great ruling,” Rogers said. “The public needs to know as specifically as possible what is being discussed behind closed doors.”

“Now, we realize we did not have a public vote,” Herring continued. “But part of that was done for the protection of our employee to assure that we were not in violation of any rights. So, with that said, and, again, our whole intent for all of this is to make sure that we are doing what is legal and right for our employee as well as our other employees as well as our citizens. All of this has been in good faith and with good intentions and we believe that, in the end, the public, as well as the employee and council will come to an agreement which may be a compromise or whatever, but it will be done in good faith according to the rights of the employee and the rights of the citizens and other employees.”

Then Herring got to her point.

“So, we have a motion to continue with the legal advice services concerning personnel issues, compliance with the FOIA and HIPPA,” Herring said before calling for a motion. Councilman Doug Porter made the motion and Councilwoman Angela Harrison seconded it.

Herring then bore down, with measured emphasis on each word as she addressed her fellow council members.

“I will remind you once again that we were in one accord when we made this decision. This mayor does not spend money without approval of the Council – always in the best interest of the Town,” Herring said.

After her own comments, Herring committed a parliamentary faux pas by jumping right to the vote without allowing discussion from other council members.

While the vote passed 3 – 2, somewhere between Herring’s call for the vote and the actual vote, the ‘all of one accord’ apparently fell apart. Herring, Harrison and Porter voted to continue retaining the attorney. Councilmen Heath Cookendorfer and Don Prioleau, with stern faces, raised their right hands to vote against the measure.

It was the first record of Council addressing the issue in public session.

Asked following the meeting if he thought Herring, Harrison and Porter would continue to pursue looking for a way to remove Bella from Town Hall, Prioleau shook his head.

“I don’t know what they plan to do. I told them in executive session that I didn’t have a problem with the dog. Vivian is a great employee. I don’t know what we’d do without her. I think they’ve taken it too far. We need to get back to the business of the citizens,” Prioleau said.

Cookendorfer told The Voice that he, too, had no problem with the dog being in Town Hall.

I didn’t want to pursue this, but I did advise the mayor when it came up that if she is going to pursue it, then she should have legal advice. Council has pursued things in the past without legal advice and got in trouble,” Cookendorfer said.

Cookendorfer said he had not seen any documentation of complaints against the dog.

“It’s hearsay. I personally think we should step away from this. My vote tonight was my answer. I don’t want to continue in this,” Cookendorfer said. “But it is the majority vote of Council.”

Several citizens addressed the issue at Council meetings last week and again on Tuesday night.

“Town Council has raised the millage for our property taxes, our water rates and business license fees. I have no problem paying those, but I ask you to be good stewards with that money and not spend it frivolously. If a couple of people have a problem with the service animal, work it out, but don’t spend our money on it,” resident Dan Martin told Council. “If legal expenses were already incurred without a vote, to me, this is misappropriation of funds.”

Martin’s wife, Robbie, said the publicity of the Council’s issue with Case’s service dog brings bad publicity to the town and the possibility of a law suit.

“It needs to stop now,” she said.

Longtime resident Patsy Palmer likened Council’s tiff with the dog to an episode of Survivor.

“Bullying, lying, secret alliances. Vivian is a good person with a service dog,” Palmer said.

Downtown merchant Carol Allen spoke on behalf of several citizens who had signed a petition.

“Vivian has always been courteous and professional to all of us. We’re shocked to hear of the concern of Council members. Bella doesn’t bother anyone and we feel she offers protection and a sense of wellbeing,” Allen said.

None of those who addressed council spoke against the dog or Case.