Franklin criticizes Town’s attorney in press release

BLYTHEWOOD – In a press release dated June 30, Blythewood Mayor Bryan Franklin called out the Town’s municipal attorney, Pete Balthazor, for “incorrectly stating the Town’s position regarding the legal invoices for the MPA Strategies lawsuits as advised by our outside attorneys.”

 During last month’s final reading on the town’s budget, Council members Donald Brock and Sloan Griffin asked for a breakdown of the outside legal fees which are budgeted at $200,000 for fiscal year 2023-24.

They also said they were entitled to know how much the MPA lawsuits have cost the town.

The Town’s municipal attorney Pete Balthazor agreed, saying that, “obviously the amount that has been incurred by the Town would probably be public information.”

Balthazor went on to explain that, “Usually an itemized statement from an attorney lists the tasks the attorney has performed. That description of tasks would be attorney client privileged information. Not for you. You’d be able to review that information.”

That did not set well with Franklin.

At issue is that the Mayor and two council members (Councilmen Rich McKenrick and Eddie Baughman) refuse to comply with Brock’s and Griffin’s requests to make public the amount of the legal fees the Town continues to incur in regard to the lawsuits between MPA Strategies and the Town and Franklin.

In his press release, Franklin chastised Balthazor and laid out his (the mayor’s) view of the issue, saying, “The Town’s outside attorneys only have a duty to the Town and legal invoices requested by the Town councilmembers will not be provided …” He did not explain in the release who, specifically, he considers to be the “Town.”

Franklin also defended his stance by repeating that the Town “has received an opinion from a nationally recognized legal ethics consultant concluding Councilman Brock has breached his ethical duty to the Town of Blythewood concerning the MPA matter, and is adverse to the Town.”

However, neither he nor the Town’s outside attorney David Black will identify that recognized legal ethics consultant other than to say he is an attorney out of New York.

Meghan Walker Dayson, Executive Director of the S.C. Ethics Commission, has confirmed in an emailed response to The Voice that in South Carolina, “only the Ethics Commission can determine if a person has violated the Ethics Act.” She also confirmed that no ethics complaint has been filed against Brock.

Hidden Legal Costs

In early 2022, the council changed the way they reported attorney fees on the Town’s monthly financial reports and the budget. All of the Town’s attorney fees, including the municipal attorney Pete Balthazar’s salary, are now lumped together into one number so that MPA and other lawsuit costs are no longer discernable to the public.

The lump sum of legal fees for the last three fiscal years (FY 2020-21, 2021-22 and through May, 2023) add up to $368,691.35. There is no breakout of the MPA legal fees. The Town hired attorney David Black in the spring of 2021 and the first lawsuit was filed in June 2021.

On Feb. 10, 2023, The Voice submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Town Administrator Carroll Williamson for the Town’s costs for the MPA lawsuits.

The Town officials, under attorney-client privilege, informed Black (who, in turn, informed The Voice on March 24, 2023) that they refuse to hand over those documents.

After noting a number of exceptions that the Town claims allow it to refuse to divulge how much it is spending on the MPA legal matters, Black finally wrote that the Town does not keep a ledger listing of these legal expenses, and, therefore, is not required to create such a ledger.

Black also insists that supplying documents associated with the Town’s MPA legal expenses amounts to turning over work product and, therefore, are privileged.

Taylor Smith, an attorney representing the member newspapers of the S.C. Press Association, disagrees with Black’s exceptions.

“An attorney’s invoice to clients can vary in how much information is provided to explain a particular charge,” Taylor said. “What they rarely do, though, is divulge attorney-client protected information back to their client. Assuming these invoices even do have such confidential information, the state’s open record laws (FOIA) allow redaction of the info, not refusal to release the entire record.”

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