Whitaker restricts county employees from talking to media or council members

Bender: Law Does Not Prohibit Employees From Conversing With Council Members

WINNSBORO – Last week, County Administrator Malik Whitaker informed the county’s department heads that employees are not to talk to council members.

It is the third time this year that Whitaker has tried to curtail who county employees can talk to. Some have expressed concern that the administration is impinging on their right to free speech.

The issue began shortly after Whitaker hired County Deputy Administrator Synithia Williams in January.

In a Feb. 10, 2022 email, Whitaker informed county employees that they could no longer speak with the media, without administration’s approval.

He wrote that Williams will serve as the public information officer for the county going forward.

“If you are contacted by someone from the media, direct them to Ms. Williams,” Whitaker wrote.

On Sept. 15, 2022, Whitaker sent an email titled “Fairfield County Organization Structure,” to all Fairfield county council members and county employees. In that email, Whitaker referenced the S.C. Association of County’s Handbook for County Government in South Carolina that outlines the general chain of command in a Council/Administrator form of government – that employees are accountable to the administrator, who is accountable to council and that “the administrator should be the major channel of information between the council and the county staff.”

Last week Whitaker further tightened the reins on employee communication. After calling a meeting of the county’s department heads, Whitaker clarified the intent of his Sept. 15 email about the county organization structure. According to sources who told The Voice they feared reprisal if they spoke publicly, Whitaker relayed to department heads that employees are not to talk to council members.

Gilbert says Whitaker is taking that too far.

“He cannot tell employees not to talk to council members,” Gilbert said. “The Handbook is saying council members cannot give employees orders or make demands of them. It is not saying council members and employees can’t talk to each other.”

According to Section 4-9-660 of the state statue, council members have every right to make inquiries and investigations concerning county staff.

 “Yes, council members are not to interfere with the administrator’s job of administering,” Councilman Douglas Pauley said. ”But the law states that we have the right to inquire and investigate county business. We have had a number of issues that council members, by law, had a right to look into. Plus employees are also tax-paying citizens and our constituents and they deserve their voices to be heard.

Media Attorney Jay Bender addressed Whitaker’s interpretation of the law.

“I think the interpretation by the administrator is not supported by the language of the statute, and quite possibly an infringement on the First Amendment rights of county employees,” Bender said. “The code section exists to prevent council members from giving orders to county employees.  It does not prohibit employees from having conversations with council members, especially in the context of an election.  County employees are free to take political positions and make political statements so long as these are not disruptive to the office in which they are employed.”

Comments

  1. Mike Bell says

    I am just saying!

    This shows 3 things in this article:
    1. How immature Whitaker is about county matters pick your battles well. Of course, if the media is calling or a FOIA matters direct them to one source.
    2. Complaining on how bad the county is and how poor the leaders are (Whitaker and Bell) it will never be controlled. It the truth!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    3. How can Whitaker control employees talking to the council members that they can vote for to represent them in there district.

    Whitaker is just plain stupid (an idiot) !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Mike Bell says

    His name should be changed to Albert Einstein!!! He is lackluster as a administrator!

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