COVID-19 statute fails… again

WINNSBORO – Members of the public are once again welcome at Fairfield County council meetings despite objections from some office holders.

On Monday night, council members voted 3-3 on a motion to renew the county’s emergency COVID-19 ordinance. The tie vote constituted a failed vote. Councilman Mikel Trapp was absent.

Council Chairman Moses Bell and council members Shirley Greene and Tim Roseborough and Trapp seemingly voted to renew the emergency ordinance in February, with a 4-3 vote.

However, the state statute requires a supermajority to enact or renew an emergency ordinance. That didn’t happen with the February vote, which prompted the March vote.

Councilmen Douglas Pauley, Clarence Gilbert and Neil Robinson said they voted against the emergency ordinance because it does not allow the public to address council at the meetings. They noted that the public can safely attend by wearing masks and social distancing.

“I understand the environment we’re in with respect to COVID. But I’ve received more concerns from citizens – phone calls and complaints – than I’ve received in the two years I’ve been on council, so I think that we need to find a safe way for citizens to attend these meetings and share their concerns in person to the whole council,” Councilman Clarence Gilbert said at the February meeting.

 Others disagreed.

Councilwoman Greene lectured the three council members who voted against reinstating the emergency ordinance saying their vote was “putting people at risk,” and accusing them of doing so for political reasons.

“Tonight we’ve done another disservice to the citizens of Fairfield County,” Greene said. “Health and safety is very important. We have to talk about ways that benefit the community, and not personal gain, personal ideas.

 “When you want to play politics, play politics with your own group or organization. Don’t play politics with the health of citizens of Fairfield County,” Greene continued. “There may be repercussions.”

Earlier in the meeting, Greene herself huddled for a photo with other council members without practicing social distancing. Greene also asked for a show of hands of people who have received their vaccinations. Most in the room raised their hands.

Fairfield County COVID cases remain relatively low compared to neighboring counties and have been generally trending downward in recent weeks, according to data from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Since peaking at 35 on January 12, confirmed COVID-19 cases have tumbled to a daily average of 4.43 cases in the seven-day period ending on March 6, DHEC data shows.

“The three of us aren’t the ones playing politics,” Councilman Douglas Pauley told The Voice after the meeting. “We have talked with Ms. Greene and told her that we will vote for the emergency ordinance if it is amended to allow the public to speak at the microphone and address their concerns. While I share everyone’s concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, it is obvious many of our citizens have concerns they would like to share with council directly and publicly, and I feel there are reasonable measures we can enact to allow them to do so in a safe manner. It’s being done safely in most other governments around us including the Town of Winnsboro, Blythewood, Ridgeway and Chester. A little compromise goes a long way.”

FOIA Faux Pas

In other business, council cancelled a planned executive session discussion of economic development projects, a discussion that a media law expert said likely would’ve violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

An agenda for Monday night’s meeting included an executive session for two items, one of which included a “Discussion Regarding Economic Development Projects Located in Fairfield County Pursuant to S.C. Code § 30-4-70 (a) (5).”

Jay Bender, an attorney with the S.C. Press Association, of which The Voice is a member, called that explanation inadequate. A judge evaluating that explanation would concur, he said.

“The court would require a more precise statement of individual projects. In my analysis, the statement of purpose for the executive session was insufficiently specific and likely misleading,” Bender said.

Council members ultimately pulled the executive session item after Bell, the council chairman, explained that the S.C. Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt, who planned to participate, could not attend. 

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