S.C. Press Association officials: County's offer violated Freedom of information laws

The York County Council may have broken S.C. Freedom of Information laws by not publicly voting on its decision to offer its county manager job to Jim Baker, said officials with the S.C. Press Association.

Here's what happened: The council had a closed-door meeting Monday night before a workshop. During that meeting, the councilmen decided they wanted Baker. They told Chairman Buddy Motz, interim County Manager David Larson and County Attorney Melvin McKeown to call and begin negotiations with him, knowing he was finalist for a few other jobs and not knowing what terms he might accept.

The meeting adjourned with no action taken. But an offer to Baker was made Tuesday, councilmen said.

That violates the law, said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association. Members of a public body may not commit the public body to a specific course of action -- even through an informal poll -- during executive session.

"They obviously made a decision behind closed doors, and that's illegal," he said. The SCPA's lawyer, Jay Bender, concurred.

But McKeown argues a decision was not made and FOI laws were not violated. The council directed staff to get more information from Baker and to work out contractual matters such as salary, insurance and other benefits.

"People expressed opinions," McKeown said. "No vote was taken in executive session. "He was the No. 1 choice apparently of a number of members of the County Council. The direction was to staff, 'Let's pursue this and see what the salary range is.'"

If an actual contract is worked out, the council will vote in open session whether to accept it, he said.

Under FOI laws, the council is required to release the names of no fewer than three finalists for the manager position. Last week, Council Chairman Buddy Motz said the council had narrowed the pool down to four applicants. When there were three finalists left, the county would give out the names, he said.

The council has been acting under McKeown's advice, Motz said.

"I sell insurance, I'm not a lawyer, but I do know that many times we go into executive session and direct staff to negotiate," he said. "If this is not right, none of the other things are either."