The town council violated state open meeting laws this week, according to one expert and some public officials.
The town scheduled a meeting for 7 a.m. Monday, but did not send out an agenda until 12:35 p.m. Friday, after the Fort Mill Times inquired about it. The town’s website did not list Monday’s meeting until Friday afternoon.
Section 30-4-80 of S.C. open meetings law stipulates that notice of meetings should be posted and sent to the media “as early as is practicable but not later than twenty-four hours before the meeting.” Although the law does not specify if weekends are included, Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, says the spirit of the law implies government business is conducted weekdays.
Fort Mill Town Manager Dennis Pieper said the notice could have been sent out as late as 7 a.m. Sunday morning and still be in compliance.
“It’s nowhere in the law, there’s no reference whatsoever to weekends,” he said.
Pieper didn’t give a reason why the agenda, which includes a presentation by Fort Mill school officials and other business, hadn’t been sent out Friday morning. He also said weekends are considered working days for government.
“We’re not trying to avoid anything,” he said. “I work seven days a week, 24 hours a day all the time. If you don’t like it, tell the (S.C.) General Assembly to write that (weekends) into the law.”
Town Clerk April Beachum said late Friday morning she hadn’t sent out the agenda because she was told by Pieper it wasn’t necessary, but that she didn’t agree with that decision. She also expressed her feeling in an email.
“I was emailed by the town manager that we don’t have to publish or notify anyone of Monday meetings before Sundays. But since I don’t work on Sundays, I’m trying to get the information out today,” she wrote.
“In fact, in the spirit of fairness and openness, I will forward you the email I received from him about this because it always bothers me to know that either A) I’ve been doing this wrong for over 14 years, or B) I’ve misinterpreted the 24-hour notice law for over 14 years. I’ve always operated under the assumption and interpretation of the 24-hour notice law that that means 24-hour business day notice, not a literal interpretation. That’s why it bothers me to receive meeting information so late in the week every time, as producing the packets to council, public, and press should be done a business day ahead (in my mind) to satisfy the 24-hour law. Again, I’m only doing what I’m told, but in the spirit of open government and fairness to public and press, it is not the way I would do it if it were up to me.”
Beachum forwarded an email to the Fort Mill Times from Pieper dated Feb. 20 with “Agenda for your Approval” in the subject line. In the email Beachum is chided for sending out a notice to public officials and the media in which she apologized for not sending out an agenda for the Monday morning meeting.
Pieper’s email says in part, “I want to make sure that you are clear that the notice to meet the requirements of the law is 24 hours. Therefore, it would be by 7 am on Sunday. The emails you sent previously apologizing were not warranted as we exceeded the notice requirements by days.”
Other public officials agreed with Rogers about the spirit of the law.
“If we have a Monday morning meeting, we make sure we have a notice out by Friday. I can’t say we’ve done it 100 percent of the time, but that’s our intent,” Tega Cay City Manager Charlie Funderburk said.
Fort Mill School Board President Patrick White said the question of weekends is not applicable to the board, but it tries to provide more than 24 hours notice of public meetings.
“We don’t have Monday meetings anymore, we meet on Tuesdays, but I’d say we certainly try to adhere to the 24-hour rule and if a weekend were involved we’d try to have it out well in advance of the weekend,” he said.
White, who emphasized he wasn’t giving an opinion on the town of Fort Mill’s interpretation of the law, said he understands why meeting notices are important.
“It says to go to the media, but it’s not just for the media,” he said. “It’s for the media to notify the public and for the media to understand what’s happening in case they want to cover it and I’m not referring to any specific entity, but if it’s a Monday morning meeting, you’d want to give the public and the media at least two working days to react to it.”
York County Councilman Chad Williams (D-District 7), who’s nearing the end of his first term, said the law “does leave a lot of room for ambiguity.”
“I’m not saying Fort Mill is doing it right or wrong, but I guess I’m going to look at it from the ‘earliest practicability’ standpoint,” Williams said.
Longtime County Councilman Curwood Chappell (R-District 5) had a different interpretation. He said if the meeting isn’t being called just to discuss a personnel matter in executive session, then the public should be notified well in advance and in the case of a Monday morning meeting, then Friday morning would be the absolute latest.
“Yes,” he said, when asked if he thought Fort Mill was not in compliance with the spirit of the law.
“If it’s not dealing with personnel, everyone needs to be notified in time for news media to cover it. If you’re scared to tell the public what you’re doing, you should not be serving at all in elected office or in appointed office,” Chappell said.
District 48 Rep. Ralph Norman (R-Rock Hill), said “technically, they are in compliance,” but wouldn’t be opposed to making the law more specific.
Norman also made a point of saying government “has an obligation to make sure the public has timely notification of meetings and to keep detailed minutes so everyone knows what was discussed.”