For the second time in two weeks, we have to admonish Kershaw County Council to do better when it comes to how things are handled at its meetings.
Tuesday’s meeting included testy exchanges over the procedure by which members can amend its proposed agenda and whether or not the county was sufficiently informing the public about a then-pending vote.
It all centered around the future of the Central SC MegaSite, with most of the verbal sparring being between Chairman Julian Burns and Councilman Jimmy Jones. You can read our front page story about the meeting for details that would be too long to recount here.
However, here are our main takeaways:
First, Jones was not wrong when he pointed out that there was nothing attached to Tuesday’s agenda that would have given the public even a modicum of understanding of what council planned to discuss that night concerning the MegaSite. While the agenda listed the item as “Discussion/Approval of Engineering and Permitting for Central SC MegaSite,” there was no information on the potential cost of engineering a 100-acre portion of the site, nor the fact that it would be tied to extending the county’s option to purchase the entire MegaSite. The public does have a right to know at least something about what council is contemplating taking action on.
At the very least, we would have preferred that a memorandum or other document had been attached to the agenda stating something along the lines of “council plans to vote on extending an option on the Central South Carolina MegaSite and to spend $1.13 million with a firm to be selected at the time of the vote to conduct engineering and permitting on a 100-acre portion of the site.”
We do not feel such a statement would have harmed any negotiations or prematurely divulged any privileged information ahead of either an executive session or vote.
Ironically, however, we believe Jones came close to disclosing what was, at that moment, privileged information to be discussed in executive session. We are all for full disclosure -- in other words, we would prefer more information to be disclosed ahead of executive sessions and votes than less. However, the vast majority of journalists and news organizations have no wish to sink deals by revealing proprietary information before council is ready to take a vote. Burns was not wrong to insist on having that level of discussion take place behind closed doors for the moment.
However, in our opinion, procedure was not strictly followed to enter executive session. For one, the executive session was officially listed on the agenda as coming after the new business was conducted, along with council, administrator and legal briefings. Instead, from almost the beginning of the meeting, Burns said that an executive session would take place as part of the discussion about the MegaSite. With no vote of any kind, Burns moved the executive session up from where it was on the agenda. We also do not believe that the motion itself to go into executive session followed -- as cemented by Ballard v. Newberry in 2017 -- the S.C. Freedom of Information Act’s (FOIA) requirement to state the specific purpose of entering an executive session.
While Burns, along with County Administrator Vic Carpenter, did provide a lot of background on what the county wanted to do, the motion itself was simply to go into executive session, with no comment as to its purpose. Yes, the purpose was essentially already known, but when Burns asked for the motion to enter executive session, he should have stated the specific purpose, preferably as we suggested above.
“The law is clear that a public body must be specific about why it is going into executive session,” S.C. Press Association Executive Director Bill Rogers, who helped draft the S.C. FOIA, said. “This is a safeguard to allow the public to know what is being discussed.”
On the bright side, Councilman Sammie Tucker Jr.’s motion for a vote on the MegaSite following the hour-long executive session did a good job of detailing exactly what council was voting on: an extension of the option for the county to purchase the site, and the $1.13 million expenditure (to be partly covered by other partners) on the engineering and permitting work to be performed by Alliance Consultant Engineers. We applaud him for being as specific as he could, and following up with an explanation of how the expense is being split.
Still, county council needs to do better in following procedures and state law. Not doing so could do as much, if not more, harm than giving the public sufficient notice about the true nature of the actions it is taking.