Bender: Fairfield ad hoc committee meeting likely illegal on 3 levels

WINNSBORO – Fairfield County Council likely violated several provisions of state law when it shut out the public in hiring a new county attorney, according to an opposing council member and a media law attorney.

In doing so, council members risk costly litigation challenging the process and nullifying related votes, observers say.

At a special meeting Feb. 18, the council voted 4-3 to hire Columbia attorney Charles Boykin to replace Tommy Morgan, who recently announced he was stepping down under pressure, effective March 1.

Council Chairman Moses Bell and council members Shirley Greene, Tim Roseborough and Mikel Trapp voted to approve. Neil Robinson, Clarence Gilbert and Doug Pauley opposed.

Thursday’s vote came after an ad hoc committee secretly interviewed four candidates earlier in the week.

The committee never provided any public notice, never published an agenda and never voted in public — all violations of the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Pauley said the entire process was “shrouded in secrecy,” saying council members reneged on campaign promises of increased transparency.

“So far this process has been conducted every way but right,” Pauley said. “We need to be transparent about what we are doing. The FOIA law was not followed.”

Bell declined to comment.

Jay Bender, an attorney with the S.C. Press Association, of which The Voice is a member, said the council’s vote could trigger a lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of the council’s vote. That happened in 2001 in Quality Towing v. City of Myrtle Beach. The state Supreme Court ruled that Myrtle Beach violated FOIA when a committee the city set up to review proposals from various wrecker companies failed to provide public notice of its meetings.

“The committee is a public body and all public bodies are required to give advance public notice of their meetings,” Bender said.

Double standard

Councilwoman Shirley Greene was among those voting to hire Boykin after multiple apparent FOIA violations by the hiring committee were made.

Greene, who recently won election in District 2, campaigned on a platform of “promoting transparency, accountability, and courtesy.”

She wrote on her official campaign Facebook page that “a VOTE FOR SHIRLEY GREENE is a vote for fiscal responsibility, Council transparency, and accountability.”

Pauley called out a double standard in his prepared statement.

“A number of us, some of the new council members included, ran on a platform of transparency,” Pauley said. “Now is a prime opportunity for those of us who campaigned on transparency to show our constituents who is being honest and who was saying anything they thought would help them get elected.”

Greene declined to comment.

Any lawsuit against Fairfield County could cost taxpayers money. FOIA judgments typically cost the losing side in excess of $10,000, more if outside counsel is hired.

“It seems clear the [council] is operating without any legal advice and if they keep doing that, they’re in trouble legally,” Bender said. “Right off the bat you’re having secret government activity. It’s just incredibly stupid for a public body to start off a new majority by disregarding the law.”

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