The Town of Fort Mill may have violated South Carolina’s open meeting laws when the council and staff held regularly scheduled workshops without recording minutes of those meetings, according to Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association.
Open meeting laws require that public bodies keep “written minutes of all public meetings,” the law states.
“Whether it is a retreat or whatever, it is a meeting under the law and minutes must be kept,” Rogers said.
Minutes aren’t taken at the town’s quarterly workshops because “no action was taken by the council,” according to Kimberly Starnes, media and event coordinator for the town.
However, Rogers said “that’s problematic. You have no idea what they talked about.”
Regardless of whether votes are taken, minutes should be recorded as required by the law, Rogers said.
Councilman Nathan Blythe said that he knew the council was required to have an agenda but was also under the impression that because no votes were taken, no minutes were needed.
“We don’t ever do votes. These are really intended to be information gathering,” Blythe said.
If minutes are required by law, Blythe said, minutes should be taken.
“If we’re not in compliance, we definitely need to be in compliance with the law. There are no secrets going on out there,” he said.
Meetings held out of town
The absence of minutes isn’t the only issue with the town’s quarterly workshops, Rogers said. The most recent workshops were held in Chester, at the Chester County Government Complex, or at York’s City Hall, approximately a 30-minute drive from the Town of Fort Mill.
“It’s very difficult for people to get to, and it’s irresponsible for them to hold meetings out of town. What are they trying to hide?” Rogers said.
The purpose of the workshops is to delve into topics more deeply than a typical town council meeting might allow, and “share ideas in a retreat atmosphere,” Starnes said.
Being out of town also helps minimize distractions, said Assistant Town Manager Joe Cronin.
“When you go off site, you’re a little far away and it makes it easier to focus time and attention without taking calls or running out to take care of your child. You can focus on the issues at hand,” Cronin said.
Councilman Tom Adams said that in the past, the Spratt Building on Main Street has served as a site for a workshop meeting, but that it “helps foster some better discussions to get away a little bit.”
“The retreat format is a very productive and cost-effective way to strategically plan for the town’s future. Working with other municipalities collaboratively fosters a spirit of cooperation between municipalities and often across county lines,” said Mayor Danny Funderburk.
The Fort Mill Town Council is borrowing facilities from the other municipalities but representatives from those municipalities are not strategizing or working with the town council during the planning sessions, according to Cronin.
Blythe said that in the year he has served on the town council, no town resident has expressed interest in attending the workshops or had concerns about their distance from the town.
“To be honest, we have so few wanting to come to the ones in Fort Mill. If there was more interest, that might come into play more,” Blythe said. “On average, we schedule 28 meetings a year and we’re talking about four of them. Twenty four are sparsely attended, if at all.”
The travel time to the workshops is no more than an average commute, he added.
Lancaster County workshops
In Lancaster County, workshops are new for the County Council, which voted to begin holding regularly scheduled workshops just last month. The workshops will be held in council chambers in the county building, said council chairman Larry McCullough, he said, and minutes will be taken.
“We’re just using good meeting mechanics,” McCullough said.
McCullough said he could envision a time when the workshops might be held in another part of the county, for instance in Buford or Indian Land, but he doesn’t foresee leaving the county for the meetings.
If they did, they would need a clear reason, he said.
“If there is a need, a purpose, a value, you ought to be able to explain that. And if you can’t, it’s just that we’re just going to boondoggle, then that’s probably not a good use of taxpayer’s money,” McCullough said.
Holding town meetings outside of the town is “highly unusual,” Rogers said.
“Sometimes people will go away for retreats at fancy places, but they aren’t regularly scheduled and not in some other municipal buildings. How ridiculous is that? It’s just a disservice for the public to have a public meeting that the public can’t go to,” Rogers said.
Meals were brought in for council members and staff during the out-of-town workshops.
At a November 2012 meeting in Chester, public information records show that breakfast was brought in for the workshop from Hardee’s in Chester, costing $22.69. No expense for lunch was indicated.
For a February 2013 meeting in Chester, breakfast was purchased at Bojangles for $47.31. Lunch was purchased from a Chester restaurant, at $190.24.
At the most recent workshop in August in York, breakfast was purchased at the Hardee’s in Fort Mill, costing $19.97. Lunch was purchased from Italian Garden in York and cost $153.07.
According to public information records, no employees or council members sought mileage reimbursement for travel to the out-of-town meetings. Town vehicles are sometimes used to travel to the meetings, said Cronin. Town staff will often meet at the town hall and carpool to the meetings in a town vehicle, he said.
There was no fee for use of the Chester or York facilities, he said.