Council votes 3-1 against reimbursement

Vote to reimburse Brock’s legal costs has surprise ending

BLYTHEWOOD – An item on Monday night’s town council agenda that quickly became contentious during the meeting, ended in a surprising vote.

The agenda item called for Councilman Donald Brock to be reimbursed for $2,639.25 for legal expenses he incurred in connection with a deposition for which he was subpoenaed last year. The deposition was related to a Freedom of Information (FOI) lawsuit that MPA Strategies marketing firm filed against the Town and former Mayor Bryan Franklin in June of 2021.

“I sought an opinion from the S. C. Ethics Commission that stated I should recuse myself from discussing or voting on the issue,” Brock said before leaving the council chambers to await the vote.

Mayor Sloan Griffin

“I am under the belief that anyone of us representing the citizens should be afforded the opportunity for legal representation unless found guilty of some thing,” Mayor Sloan Griffin stated. “And to my knowledge there are no records from the S.C. Ethics Commission that say Councilman Brock broke any ethical laws, nor was he judged guilty of anything by a judge.

“I have no problem affording legal representation to anyone on this council,” Griffin continued. “So, moving forward, I suggest we approve his [Brock’s] reimbursement for $2,639.25.

“Any of us on council could be called to be deposed tomorrow,” Griffin continued, ”and we should be afforded legal representation, including any members of staff.”

Throughout the 30-minute, sometimes heated discussion, Griffin passionately defended Brock’s reimbursement, as Councilman Rich McKenrick opposed it and Councilwoman Andrea Fripp sought to table it.

Then, in a surprising turn of events, at the very end of the back-and-forth, Griffin sided with McKenrick and Fripp in a 3-1 vote opposing the reimbursement for Brock.

Newly sworn-in Councilwoman Erica Page was the lone vote favoring the reimbursement.

The discussion went off the rails several times during the meeting.

Fripp repeatedly insisted that she was not against reimbursing Brock, but that this was not the right time to approve it.

“I ask for this to be tabled,” Fripp said several times. “When you talk about affording Brock the opportunity to be reimbursed, the Town was not afforded the opportunity to be reimbursed for legal fees,” she said, referring to her previously stated belief that the Town would have recouped money from sanctions against MPA Strategies had the FOI lawsuit gone to Court and not been settled.

“To be sure that the public has the correct information, there was never a judgement on the 2021 FOI case [against the Town/Franklin.] It was settled out of Court,” Griffin said. “Sanctions were called for in the FOI case, but it was settled [out of court,]. But to say we can’t get any money from sanctions because the lawsuit was settled …there was never any guarantee there would be sanctions,” he said. “I wish we could put the correct language out there. There was a possibility of sanctions but never a guarantee.

“To be honest,” Griffin said, “The attorney for the Town [David Black of Maynard Nexsen law firm] made Ms. Hunter an offer that, if she would pay the Town $3,000 – not $750,000 – that the Town would settle for that.” [See endnote.]

“I understand that there was never an exact [amount] that the Town would receive,” Fripp said, “but I felt that if the Town had the opportunity to recoup even $1,000, it should be considered. The full body hasn’t even seen the evidence, so I don’t know that it’s for us to accuse him [Brock]. We should come back later and look at this.”

“Brock has never been named in a lawsuit,” Griffin reminded Fripp.

“We’re only talking about $2,639.25,” Page said. “If a councilman is subpoenaed in regard to a legal issue, they should be given the opportunity to be reimbursed.”

“I think everything should be tabled,” Fripp said.

“Brock should have asked the council to cover his expenses prior to hiring counsel,” McKenrick argued.

“Let’s be honest,” Griffin said. “The tension at that time was that we needed to seek our own representation.”

“That’s because he [Brock] denied the legal representation the Town offered,” said McKenrick, referring to the Town’s attorney David Black.

“Sir, go back and read,” Griffin shot back. “It’s kind of asinine to have someone represent you who’s going after you?”

“He didn’t ask council [for representation] because he was afraid of the vote.” McKenrick said of Brock.

“At the time, I sat in many meetings and was told by Black to my face, ‘I don’t represent you. I represent the Town,’” Griffin said.

Page asked if the council ever asked how much money was being spent on the lawsuits.

“Council members never knew the …,” Griffin started.

“That’s not true!” McKenrick interrupted.

“If you knew those numbers, you had inside information,” Griffin said.

McKenrick countered, saying that, “I was smart enough to take what outside council showed on our website. Every penny that was spent on outside attorneys was posted every 30 days.”

In early 2022, however, when the Town’s legal expenses began shooting up, town hall combined the amounts paid out to all the different outside attorneys for various lawsuits as well as to the municipal attorney, making it impossible for citizens to discern how much the Town was spending on MPA legals. Both Black and Mayor Franklin refused to provide documentation of MPA legal expenses in response to several FOI requests from The Voice and others.

“The difference between you and me,” Griffin said to McKenrick, “is that you refer citizens to the website to add and subtract. I brought the information and the amounts to the people. The fear back then was that I would share the amounts. When I was elected mayor, the first phone call I got was [telling me] to not share the [legal] costs.”

When Page called for the vote, McKenrick mocked, “That’s a joke.”

“Call it what you want, but you had the opportunity to represent and serve. Everything won’t go your way. Everything won’t go my way,” Griffin said, adding, “Deal with it.”

Page then called for the vote.

Page voted to reimburse Brock. In a surprising change of support, Griffin joined McKenrick and Fripp in voting against reimbursement for a 3-1 vote against.  [Clarification: had Griffin voted ‘yes’ for the reimbursement, a 2-2 tie vote would have still been a failed vote.]

Following the vote, Brock returned to the council room and, during public comment time at the end of the meeting, addressed the reimbursement issue at the lectern. See his comments here.

The following day, in an email to The Voice and others, Griffin explained his erroneous vote, saying he “mistakenly voted against what I intended to support.” Read that email here.

The town settled the lawsuit and paid MPA’s legal fees in the amount of $36,000.

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