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Rock Hill council meeting phone policy revised

The revision of a procedural rule that allows the mayor or Rock Hill City Council members to participate by telephone in "unusual circumstances" opens "a can of worms," some residents say.

The revisions, approved at Monday night's council meeting, allow for any other member of council to participate by phone "if they are out of town or too ill to attend in person" as long as several requirements are met.

Those requirements include:

The city manager is informed in writing no later than three hours before the meeting.

If the absence is because of an illness, a statement must be included saying the person has not been advised by their doctor to avoid making decisions with legal consequences.

Each person physically present at the meeting can hear all comments made by the person on the telephone.

Any votes or comments made via telephone can be recorded in the meeting minutes.

There is no communication between the physically present members of council and person attending via telephone besides what is on record for the meeting.

At a June 13 meeting, Mayor Doug Echols, who was recovering from heart surgery, asked to participate via telephone. His request was denied in a 3-3 council vote. Consequently, Echols was driven to the meeting to participate. But he said he planned to work with city attorney Paul Dillingham to write a policy giving council members the opportunity to vote during unusual circumstances.

At Monday's meeting, Echols said this method legally approved by the S.C. Attorney General would be for those interested in fulfilling a responsibility even when they can't be physically present, although it wouldn't be a requirement.

Council members Susie Hinton, Osbey Roddey and Kathy Pender, who had voted in favor of Echols' June 13 request, supported the revisions.

"I would not require it," Pender said, "but it would be a welcome addition if we were able to establish a visual connection with someone who for whatever reason could not be here with us."

Councilman Jim Reno, who had voted against Echols' June 13 request, said Monday his concerns - mainly giving due notice, providing the medical statement and having clear communication - were met with the revisions.

However, John Black, who had voted against the request along with Reno and Kevin Sutton, said the revisions were changing something that he isn't sure is necessary. He was particularly concerned with the part about council members determing if a fellow council member is abusing the telephone privilege, saying it makes council members the "judge and jury."

"It opens it up to more problems where we inherently don't have problems," he said.

He pointed out that other legal bodies, such as U.S. Congress and the Senate, don't have a practice like this.

"We debate in public," Black said. "We discuss things in public."

John Hauenstein, who will run against Pender for the Ward 2 seat in next month's municipal elections, called it more a matter of "accountability and responsibility," where for hundreds of years people have expected to be able to go to their government bodies and face their representatives while they vote on important issues.

"The need to be physically present is emphasized in the rules of procedure where it states that a quorum must be physically present, and that the individual presiding over the meeting must be physically present," he said.

"We elect people in Rock Hill to serve, and we want to see you vote," said resident Paul Anderko.

Pender responded to some of the comments: "No one would sit at home to take a vote if they were able to come," she said.

The revisions passed, with Hinton, Pender, Reno and Roddey voting for. Black cast the dissenting vote. Council member Kevin Sutton was not present.

First vote on police law

In other action, the council reviewed a resisting police law that has been challenged as unconstitutional and a tool for targeting minorities and passed a first reading of two changes they hope will address these concerns.

Melvin Poole, president of Rock Hill's NAACP, threatened legal action last month, alleging police use the law to target and arrest black men. The concerns prompted an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The "clarified" ordinance reads: "No person in any physical manner shall oppose, resist or interfere with any police officer in the discharge of the police officer's official duties."

It is the same as the ordinance passed in 2001 with the addition of "in any physical manner."

The other proposed change is an ordinance regarding "investigatory stops," in which anyone who refuses to identify him or herself after being detained, or who flees or attempts to flee detainment, shall be charged with a violation of this section, removing the previous "resisting police" charge.

Before passing the first reading Monday night, council member Susie Hinton asked Police Chief John Gregory if such an ordinance is effective.

Gregory indicated the application of the ordinance is an effort to prevent, reduce and solve crimes - "to keep the public safe."

The changes must undergo another reading before adoption.