Councilman Pauley calls Bell out for pulling advertisements from The Voice

WINNSBORO – Fairfield County’s decision to publish public notices in a newspaper with a smaller reach than The Voice’s runs contrary to state law, according to a County Council member and S.C. Attorney General opinions.

At Monday night’s council meeting, Councilman Douglas Pauley accused Council Chairman Moses Bell of pulling legal notices from The Voice newspaper as retaliation for publishing stories the chairman doesn’t like.

Bell directed staff to instead publish the county’s notices in the Country Chronicle.

Pauley called Bell’s decision an “abuse of power,” saying the chairman recently refused to meet with staff to discuss his reasoning.

“The reason Mr. Bell is not interested in meeting to discuss a review of the items submitted [by both newspapers to determine their qualifications] is because Mr. Bell does not like hearing the truth,” Pauley said. “He has found out that he cannot bend The Voice to his will and make them write what he wants. He would just rather shut them down.”

Bell didn’t deny the accusation. Instead, he characterized the public notice decision as honoring the county’s procurement policy by accepting bids and awarding a contract.

Deputy County Administrator Laura Johnson reminded Bell that certain businesses, such as attorneys and newspapers, don’t fall under the county’s procurement policy.

“There’s a provision in the procurement manual on page 22 that lists a lot of items that don’t have to be bid out,” Johnson said.

Bell continued to defend the decision, which he said was originally made by the county’s former Procurement Director Sheila Pickett and former Deputy County Administrator Davis Anderson.

“The Country Chronicle sent in a bid. That bid was awarded by the former procurement director and former deputy [administrator], and no action was taken on it,” Bell said.

While both The Voice and the Country Chronicle submitted bids to Pickett on February 19, 2019, and the Country Chronicle’s publisher subsequently notified Johnson on Jan. 14, 2021 that, “we were told that both the Fairfield County Director of Procurement and Assistant County Administrator had recommended that our bid be accepted,” he stopped short of saying the bid was awarded to his newspaper as Bell claimed.

A letter sent by Pickett to The Voice on March 26, 2019, informed The Voice that, in fact, the bid was not awarded to anyone, and there was no mention in the letter that either Pickett or Anderson had “recommended” either newspaper.

“Administration has decided not to award the bid at this time,” Picket wrote. “It is in the best interest of Fairfield County to post the County’s legal notices and other advertising services in all forms of media outlets that would be most advantageous to the County.”

The Voice has continued to be the media chosen by the county for advertising since that time.

Neither Anderson nor Pickett are still employed by the county. Davis resigned under pressure in May 2019 amid an internal investigation following complaints of cronyism that were brought to light by The Voice. Pickett resigned her position a few months later.

In his public comment during county council time, Pauley stated the Chronicle submitted affidavits listing a monthly printed distribution of 4,689, while The Voice listed an average monthly distribution of 17,130.

“The newspaper with the highest number of printed circulation in the county should be chosen, in my opinion,” Pauley said.

The S. C. Attorney General’s Office agreed, opining that “[t]he legislative intent… in the various statutes dealing with notice by publication in a newspaper is to make use of the publication most likely to give the notice to the intended recipient,” Op. S.C. Att’y Gen., 1984 WL 249918 (June 27, 1984) (emphasis added).  In his opinion, that relates to circulation numbers.

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