Blythewood council pushes back against attendance law

BLYTHEWOOD – At the Blythewood Town Council’s budget workshop Friday morning, council members discussed for the second time an attendance policy for council members.

During the initial discussion on March 27, Councilman Rich McKenrick and Mayor Bryan Franklin called out Councilman Sloan Griffin for allegedly not communicating about his two absences during his deployment to New Mexico to assist with a Federal Emergency Management Agency mission.

McKenrick said he wanted the minutes to describe absences as excused or unexcused. Franklin, however, floated tougher measures.

“That’s something we should codify in an ordinance to make it clear,” Franklin said.

The conversation then dovetailed into possibly punishing absent council members, with town attorney Pete Balthazor floating the idea of sanctions.

But on Friday, McKenrick, Councilmen Eddie Baughman and Donald Brock pushed back against Franklin’s earlier suggestion that rules about absences should be codified as law. The consensus of all three was not to penalize absent council members, but to expect communication about anticipated absences.

“It’s common courtesy,” said Baughman.

While deployed across the country for 90 days, Griffin joined one meeting remotely and missed two others. At a more recent council meeting, for which he was present in person, he shared more about his attendance during the deployment.

“I said exactly where I was at a previous meeting,” he said.

“He stated that it wasn’t that he was on vacation, he was in response mode,” the Jan. 23 meeting minutes state.

Griffin bristled over the notion that some Blythewood council members weren’t aware of his whereabouts.

“They knew where I was,” he said.

McKenrick voiced dismay that Griffin missed a vaguely defined “ethics briefing” in executive session.

On Friday, McKenrick said the town had paid $2,200 for attorneys to provide a legal briefing to the council during an executive session, and, had they been aware of Griffin’s anticipated absence, Town staff could’ve rescheduled it for a time when he could attend.

According to McKenrick, the $2,200 legal briefing was for the purpose of the Town’s attorneys imparting “legal advice that was an ethics opinion” [concerning Brock].

Mayor Bryan Franklin added, “We were advised that Councilman Donald Brock apparently has breached his ethical duty to the Town.”

The Voice later learned, however, that the alleged ‘ethics opinion’ the town received from their attorneys during the executive session was not issued by the S.C. Ethics Commission, and that only the Commission can issue a valid ethics opinion in South Carolina.

Attorney David Black, who imparted the “legal advice that was an ethics opinion,” was quoted in another newspaper saying he had not involved the S.C. Ethics Commission.

McKenrick did not say how or if Griffin’s absence might have affected the cost of the executive session. 

Griffin, who was absent during the discussion at Friday’s four-hour morning budget work session, responded to The Voice’s email that he had to work and that he had notified town hall and asked that meetings not be scheduled during work days.

“Recently, we’ve had an unprecedented amount of special called meetings on work days and for full time employees such as myself, that exhausts our vacation time,” Griffin said. “As warmer months are approaching, I would like to save my earned vacation time for family vacations! Lastly when we host meetings earlier in any day, most citizens are at work and aren’t afforded the opportunity to weigh in on matters important to them without the citizen(s) too using earned vacation time.”

“It’s not the idea that you missed a meeting,” Baughman said.” You can request it be an excused absence…. But if [a councilman] doesn’t show up, we don’t know if something happened to him or he’s on his way here or what.”

Councilman Donald Brock said that while this is certainly a courtesy that members extend to each other, he felt that one council member had been unfairly singled out.

Also, Brock said, scheduling meetings that conflict with common working hours can create challenges for council members who are not retired and also for members of the public who wish to attend.

“I have no problem with an attendance policy. If you want to enact some sort of punishment for somebody not showing up for an unexcused absence, ok, sure,” Brock said, “but don’t make it difficult for some of us who have to choose between what puts food on our table for our children and coming to a town council meeting.”

Baughman said he’s not seeking to punish anyone, only to ensure communication.

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