AG: Council can view documents

BLYTHEWOOD – Blythewood Town Council members are entitled to review financial documents itemizing town legal expenses, according to the S.C. Attorney General’s Office.

Elected officials also aren’t required to file Freedom of Information Act requests for financial records over which they have jurisdiction, the Attorney General’s office stated in a June 2019 opinion.

“It is this Office’s opinion that an elected official has the right to access financial documents possessed by the governmental entity that he or she is elected to oversee,” the opinion states.

The Attorney General’s opinion throws cold water on Blythewood Mayor Bryan Franklin’s argument that other council members aren’t entitled to view the documents.

In a prepared statement, Franklin claimed council members may not view itemized legal invoices resulting from the Town’s ongoing lawsuit with MPA Strategies, the Town’s former marketing firm, citing attorney-client privilege.

“Consistent with our prior position regarding this outstanding litigation, and the Town’s previous responses to FOIA requests seeking legal invoices, such legal invoices cannot be provided to Town council members,” Franklin’s statement reads.

Jay Bender, a media law attorney representing the S.C. Press Association, of which The Voice is a member, called Franklin’s position “total hogwash.”

“I think that claiming that how much a local government is paying an attorney is subject to attorney-client privilege is total hogwash,” Bender said. “There might be elements of the claim regarding strategy or witness identification that can be redacted, but how much is being spent by the Town of Blythewood is public information.”

The 2019 attorney general opinion was issued in response to a Lexington county councilman who asked whether school board trustees can request to see an itemized statement of expenses.

The answer was a resounding yes.

“It is this Office’s opinion that a member of a school district board of trustees may request a detailed statement of what expenses are being incurred by the school district,” the opinion states.

The Voice as well as Councilmen Donald Brock and Sloan Griffin have submitted Freedom of Information requests to the Town government for documents that would reveal how much the Town has spent on the combined lawsuits and countersuits involving MPA Strategies, and in each instance, the “Town” has refused to respond with the documents.

Bender said elected officials have an obligation to inquire about how taxpayer money is spent.

“How can you be a responsible member of council if you don’t know how money is being spent?” Bender said.

Franklin issued the statement partly in response to town attorney Pete Balthazor, who at the June 26 council meeting said council members would be entitled to view the information.

“Usually in an itemized statement from an attorney it lists tasks the attorney has performed. That description of tasks would be attorney-client privileged information,” Balthazor said. “Not for you. You’re the client. You would be able to view the information.”

Franklin’s press release refutes Balthazor’s remarks, saying Balthazor “incorrectly stated the Town’s position regarding legal invoices.”

The mayor also inferred the Town has had issues with documents being leaked.

“[Billing information] is your legal strategy, and you’re giving your legal strategy over to people who’ve already been implicated in releasing confidential information to the public,” he said, without offering any evidence that any confidential information had been leaked to the public.

Former Blythewood Mayor Keith Bailey disputed Franklin’s assertion that allowing council members to view financial records would jeopardize ongoing legal efforts.

Speaking at Monday night’s joint town council-planning commission meeting, Bailey voiced concerns that the Town’s legal expenses are ballooning out of control.

“Maybe it’s Operation Bigfoot. Maybe you have a better chance of seeing Bigfoot than getting the amount [being spent] by the Town,” Bailey said. “What friggin’ strategy is that where you can’t tell how public funds are being spent? That’s an unacceptable strategy.”

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