RW vote may have violated FOIA

RIDGEWAY – A recent vote authorizing Ridgeway Police Chief Christopher Culp to take school resource officer refresher courses may have violated state open meeting laws because the public never received notice of the impending vote, according to Freedom of Information Act experts.

At its July 12 meeting, the Ridgeway Town Council voted 3-0 for Culp to receive SRO recertification training. Council members Rufus Jones and Angela Harrison were absent.

Councilman Don Prioleau introduced the motion, which authorizes Culp to receive the training either through a police major at the Columbia Police Department or the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy.

Ridgeway would incur no cost through Columbia police, Priolieau said.

The council’s vote may not have been legal, though, because the agenda didn’t list any items concerning SRO training.

Bill Rogers, Executive Director of the S.C. Press Association, called the vote “sneaky” because the SRO training issue was never publicized in advance.

“It’s a sneaky move to slip something by without the public knowing about it,” Rogers said. “And the council might have voted differently if it was on the agenda and the two council members [who missed the meeting] were present.”

In 2015, the state Supreme Court ruled that meeting agendas, once posted, cannot be amended without an additional 24-hour notice to the public.

This provision can only be suspended in two circumstances, according to the S.C. Municipal Association:

  • A two-thirds vote of members present and voting
  • A finding that an emergency or exigent circumstance exists.

“An exigent circumstances would be considered an urgent or time-sensitive issue,” the municipal association website states.

Council members didn’t vote at all to amend the agenda and there was no indication from council that sending Culp to receive SRO training constituted an urgent or time sensitive issue.

For information only?

Prioleau made his motion during the “Police Report” portion of the meeting, typically reserved for information-only items about arrest statistics and day-to-day police activity.

Mayor Heath Cookendorfer said Prioleau’s motion during the “Police Report” segment was unprecedented.

“I don’t mind seconding the motion to send him [Culp] to SRO training, but we’ve never approved the Police Report before,” Cookendorfer said. “We’ve always used it as ‘for information.’”

Prior to the motion, Cookendorfer also wouldn’t allow an NAACP representative to speak during the first public comments session, saying that period is reserved only for agenda (action) items.

Remarks about non-agenda items, he said, are reserved for the second public comments section, which occurs toward the end of the meeting, which is when the NAACP representative spoke.

Culp escaped an effort to fire him during the June council meeting.

Instead, council members voted to work with Culp in addressing complaints against him.

Among the complaints was an assertion that Culp, who is not certified to work as an SRO, spends a disproportionate time doubling as a de facto SRO at Geiger Elementary School at the expense of policing the town, according to public records.

State law states that SRO’s “have a primary duty the responsibility to act as a law enforcement officer, advisor and teacher for that school district.”

A common problem

As recently as June 28, the S.C. Attorney General’s Office opined that the Town of Mount Pleasant likely violated FOIA over a recent vote that resembled how the Ridgeway vote was conducted.

The Mount Pleasant council discussed a lawsuit settlement agreement in executive session. No votes were initially taken, prompting numerous residents in attendance to leave.

Later, though, the council held another executive session to discuss items other than the litigation.

After the closed door meeting, the Mount Pleasant council voted to approve the lawsuit settlement without the required two-thirds vote to amend the agenda. That action likely violated FOIA, the attorney general’s office said.

“It does not appear that either a two-thirds vote to take up the settlement again at the end of the meeting was taken,” the opinion, written by Solicitor General Robert D. Cook, said.

“Nor was there a determination by Council that this was an emergency situation or exigent circumstance, thereby allowing a bypass of the two-thirds requirement of [state law] for amendment of the agenda,” the opinion continues.

Jay Bender, an attorney with the press association, noted that in Mount Pleasant’s case, several council members didn’t participate in the executive session, and earlier votes resulted in 4-4 or 4-3 margins.

In Ridgeway, two council members missed the vote altogether. And neither council voted to amend the agenda before voting. “Given the division on [the Mount Pleasant council], it seems unlikely that a motion to amend the agenda a second time to bring the settlement agreement for a vote could have obtained the necessary two-thirds vote,” Bender wrote in a recent op-ed piece that appears on page 2 of The Voice (read here).

“Those who believe in open government in South Carolina should say thanks to Mr. Cook for this thoughtful and well-reasoned opinion,” Bender said.

Prioleau backs Culp

At Thursday’s meeting in Ridgeway, Prioleau vigorously supported sending Culp to receive SRO training, and criticized some council members and media reports for publicizing community complaints aimed at the chief.

Documents The Voice obtained through a public records request show that at least 15 formal complaints had been filed against Culp in the previous 12 months. Culp was hired in 2016.

Prioleau stated as many or more emails complimentary of the chief were submitted to the town over a six-day period. He hand delivered those emails to The Voice’s office and called for their publication.

“This young man has been working here right at two years. We’ve had nothing but good reports for him,” Prioleau said. “The 5 percent, the negative stuff, makes us all looks so bad.”

The emails delivered to The Voice, state Culp exudes professionalism and sensitivity. Some were anonymous, though most were attributed to an author or authors.

“I am writing to express my salutation, appreciation and gratitude to Chief Culp for his concerted effort and endeavors in maintaining the stability and order in the Town of Ridgeway, especially working in a risky environment because he doesn’t have an officer to back him up,” one writer stated.

Another writer stated Culp came to her aid when her vehicle broke down.

“I want to compliment Deputy Culp, who came to my assistance when my truck had stopped alongside Highway 34 a few miles past the town of Ridgeway,” the email said.

Several emails criticized council members over how Culp has been treated. At least one letter suggested criticisms of the chief were racially motivated.

Priolieau became defensive to questions about his SRO training request.

Councilman Dan Martin noted the Fairfield County Board of Trustees recently approved funding for five SROs, including one at Geiger Elementary.

“The funds are all there for the county to hire new five new SRO officers. I feel pretty sure that they’ll have those officers in place,” Martin said. “I have a hard time thinking that they’re not going to find them for all five schools.”

Martin also asked how long Culp would be absent if he attended the training. Prioleau answered by saying one to two weeks, and that the sheriff’s office would patrol Ridgeway in the interim.

“I can’t believe we’re going down this road, I’m getting really upset over this,” Prioleau said. “The man has had his training, all he needs is a refresher course.”

However, Prioleau did not present any documentation that Culp had ever been certified as an SRO officer.

Martin also asked for a more detailed breakdown of Culp’s day-to-day activities. He said the monthly police report in its current form is vague.

“How much time is he assisting other entities … as opposed to what he’s doing here?” Martin asked. “I’m just asking a simple question. How much time on average do you think he spends a month assisting these other entities (such as the Department of Natural Resources)? We don’t know what he did or anything.”

Prioleau said it’s common for police agencies to provide mutual assistance. He said the lack of specificity in the monthly report was to not bog the chief down with excessive paperwork.