Rock Hill might have violated state open government laws by naming a new city manager without a public vote, a First Amendment attorney, a University of South Carolina dean and the director of the S.C. Press Association agree.
Mayor Doug Echols announced the choice of David Vehaun on Wednesday, saying the City Council would vote on a contract with Vehaun at its next meeting on Oct. 11.
Under S.C. law, a public body cannot commit to a course of action in a closed-door executive session. Votes must be taken in public.
"If this decision was made in secret, this flies in the face of open government and transparency," said Bill Rogers, director of the S.C. Press Association. "They are doing business in back rooms out of the public's oversight."
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Echols said Vehaun's hiring will not become official until after a public vote. He said there was "no particular reason" a vote wasn't taken Wednesday.
"That's what we'll be doing on Oct. 11," he said. "That will finalize it. What we're doing between now and then is working out an agreement."
S.C. law is clear on the subject, said attorney Jay Bender, a First Amendment professor at the University of South Carolina.
The public is entitled to hear elected officials discuss the merits of a choice, Bender said, especially when it involves a major decision for the city's future.
"You can't make a selection legally without a public vote," said Bender. "There's no mystery about this law."
Council members reviewed candidates in a series of closed-door sessions that spanned from early summer to Monday night.
Hiring votes can only be taken in public meetings, said Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Mass Communications at USC.
The city's handling violates the spirit of open government laws, said Doug Fisher, a USC senior journalism instructor and former Associated Press editor.
"That city manager is going to make decisions that affect people's lives every day of the week," Fisher said.
"Why not give people a say? Take the time, give people a say on all three candidates instead of inviting criticism like this."
Carey Smith will retain the city manager post until a vote is taken, said acting city attorney Chaplin Spencer, filling in for the vacationing Paul Dillingham.
"There's no final determination until the board votes on an employment agreement," Spencer said. "That still has not taken place. Rest assured, it will."
Not good enough, Bender said.
"Something official has happened," he said. "The list has been narrowed to one, and that cannot happen legally unless it's done by a public vote."