Council votes 7-0 for $25/hr nonprofit rental fee

Bender: Discussing Rental Fee in Executive Session Likely Unlawful

WINNSBORO – Fairfield County Council likely violated South Carolina open meeting laws when it discussed a rental fee for the farmers’ market building behind closed doors, according to a media law expert.

Following an executive session during Monday night’s meeting, council voted unanimously to charge nonprofit groups $25 an hour to use the market building, which is located behind the Winnsboro town clock.

Restoration of the building for use as a farmer’s market was initiated in 2018 by Jason Taylor when he served as administrator of the county before becoming Winnsboro Town Manager in June 2021. The building was offered rent-free to the market vendors from the time it opened until April when the current administration began charging a $50 per hour rental fee to the building’s only user, the Fairfield Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market.

Following a public outcry from the market vendors and other town citizens, council voted 7-0 Monday night to lower the fee to $25 for all nonprofits.

Monday’s vote came following a 35-minute executive session in which council members received legal advice concerning an unrelated water and sewer contract, and discussed the rental fee issue.

Discussing a proposed rental fee behind closed doors is not a permitted reason for entering executive session, according to the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), said Jay Bender, a media law attorney for the S.C. Press Association, of which The Voice is a member.

“There is no exemption for a public meeting to discuss a rental rate for public property,” Bender said. “Just talking about how much to charge doesn’t satisfy the law. I think this was unlawful.”

The agenda, as originally published, did not list the rental fee vote under executive session, and council did not vote to add it as required by law.

As the meeting began, Councilman Clarence Gilbert motioned to move the rental fee item to after the executive session.

“I would like to make a motion that we move the action items 9A, 9B, 9C, as well as 14D (the rental fee) until after item 18, the executive session,” Gilbert said.

The motion passed 7-0.

Later, in announcing the reasons for various executive session items, Council Chairman Douglas Pauley lumped the rental fee with legal and contractual discussions for unrelated joint water and sewer agreements. 

“In executive session we have Item A, receipt of legal advice and discussion of negotiations incident to proposed contractual arrangements,” Pauley stated. “Also, we have Ordinance 817 in executive session, we have Ordinance 818, Ordinance 819, and also the rental fee for the nonprofit organizations.”

Following executive session, council passed third and final readings of the three water and sewer ordinances 7-0.

Pauley then called for a fee of $25 per hour for any nonprofits to rent the farmer’s market building. Councilman Dan Ruff said he preferred a variable rate for the Farmers’ Market vendors.

“I’m going to say it again. Ya’ll have heard me before. I just think we need more support for the Farmers’ Market,” Ruff said. “I brought up the option of decelerating the rate over time, as the hours increase the cost would decreases. But it doesn’t appear that will happen. It’s a tourism draw. It’s just good for the county and the town. That’s how I feel.”

“This is really geared toward all nonprofit organizations,” Pauley said to Ruff. “I understand your concerns, but it’s for all nonprofits.”

There was no other discussion and the motion to levy the $25 per hour rental fee for all nonprofits passed 7-0.

The building had not been completed when Taylor left the county in June 2021. Because it still lacks air conditioning, heat, a sprinkler system, a furnished kitchen and other things, there are legal restrictions for how it can be used. The Farmers’ and Artisans’ market is the only group using the building.

Market Manager Jamie Vaine says the market has paid the county more than $2,200 since April, and $950 for the month of July.

“We used the building only about 3 hours on Saturdays. To pay the rental fee, the vendors have had to hold fundraisers,” Vaine said.

Vaine said she and market vendor Valerie Clowney met with Pauley, Councilman Clarence Gilbert, Interim County Administrator Laura Johnson, and Deputy County Administrator Synithia Williams two weeks ago to discuss the rental fee.

Vaine said Pauley asked the market to present two proposals to the county. Which she says it did.

“Council never got back to us to discuss the proposals before they announced the $25 per hour charge at council Monday night,” said Clowney.

“We thought he was going to get back with us before making a decision,” she said. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to pay $300 – $400 a month for four mornings a month.”

During the remainder of the Saturdays in August, Vaine said, the vendors will sell their goods from 9 a.m. – 12 noon from the gravel lot in front of the new government complex on Zion Street. The Town owns that property and doesn’t charge the market to use it. The Aug. 29 Tuesday night market will also be held at that location from 6 – 8 p.m.

“After that,” Vaine said, “our board will have to decide what we will do.”

Taylor said at a county council planning retreat in 2017 that he envisioned the market as a community development project, something to encourage residents to stay here and spend their paychecks here.

Taylor also envisioned repaving and upgrading the parking lot behind the market building for parking and outdoor events. He said the market would be a draw for the downtown area.

“That’s what the Farmer’s Market and the market parking lot are about” Taylor said at the time.

Taylor initiated the restoration of the former stable building on East Washington Street with $35,000 from the Fairfield County Chamber of Commerce. He specified that it was being restored to be used as a Farmer’s Market, but that it could also be used as an event center for weddings, reunions, parties and other events that will bring revenue to the county.

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