County Council violates Freedom of Information Act twice

Members of Barnwell County Council broke the law twice in late November, it was revealed during the regular meeting Dec. 10.

Council Chairman Freddie Houston said council meant no ill intent when a majority of members met on Nov. 22 and Nov. 27 to discuss the future of the Barnwell Economic Development Commission without notifying the public or media, which is required by the Freedom of Information Act.

Last week, The People-Sentinel received an anonymous letter that said county council held two meetings without notice to the public. Before the Dec. 10 meeting started, The People-Sentinel asked Houston about the meetings and he said he would discuss it in open session. There are seven members on county council, and if four or more of them get together to talk about county business it's a quroum and the public has to be notified prior to the meeting.

Houston said he set up the Nov. 22 meeting with SouthernCarolina Alliance President and CEO Danny Black and emailed council members asking if they wanted to come. He said he got one response - from Councilman David Kenner. But when he arrived at the meeting, Houston said, there were three other council members there: Kenner, Joe Smith and Harold Buckmon.

Houston then tried to set up a second meeting, this time with EDC Executive Director Marty Martin. Houston said Martin told him he would get back to him about a meeting date. Then, on Nov. 27, Houston said he was about to leave his home to go to a funeral when he got a call asking if he was coming to the meeting at the EDC building. When he got to the EDC building, councilmen Keith Sloan, Joe Smith and Jerry Creech were already there along with Marty Martin and EDC Chairman Pete Grady.

Houston said he thought he was going to meet with Martin one-on-one and had no idea other people, including council members, were going to be involved.

Since at least four council members were present at both meetings, there was a quorum and the public should have been notified.

Houston said the public was not notified because he did not plan on there being a quorum and did not know how many council members were going to be at the meetings until he arrived at each meeting.

Both meetings went ahead even though they were in violation of the law. The FOIA law states public bodies must give at least 24-hours notice before any called, rescheduled or special meeting. The notice must include the agenda, date, time and place of the meeting.

"I'm saying this to the public and I'm saying this to the media: sometimes you can't help it but there's no excuse," Houston said about breaking the law. "I don't ever try to back down from a responsibility that the council has and myself as chairman. But I will always make every effort to contact the public, the media, and let you be aware of every meeting we have."

After describing how the illegal meetings came about, Houston went into detail about the situation with SouthernCarolina and the EDC.

There has been, for a long time, a lack of communication and stagnate working relationship between the EDC and SCA, Houston said.

Councilman Lowell Jowers said he asked both organizations years ago for more cooperation between the two, but nothing has changed.

Houston, who is on the SCA Board of Directors along with Jowers, said he and council have been trying to get SCA and EDC to work together for years.

"That has not happened," he said, "I don't know if we're ever going to make it any better with the way it's set up."

Houston said he thinks it's time to go in a different direction and hand over control of Barnwell's economic development to SCA.

SouthernCarolina Alliance works with six counties - Barnwell, Bamberg, Allendale, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper - to bring industries to the region. The SCA is focused on regional growth while the EDC's goal is to bring jobs to Barnwell County.

Houston said other counties in the SCA region think Barnwell is not a good working partner.
"If Barnwell is going to survive in the alliance, we can't keep going in the direction we're going," he said.

But if complete control was given to SCA, what would happen to the EDC?

Barnwell County pays the salaries of the EDC's two employees, but the commission pays back the money each year from payments it receives on property it manages through the Barnwell Economic Development Corporation. The EDC was organized in 1987.

The county also pays SCA for its services - $15,000 a year - and Houston wondered why it's necessary to pay two groups to do essentially the same thing.

It's unclear what will happen to the EDC if full control of Barnwell's economic future is given to the SCA.

On the agenda for the Dec. 10 meeting was the first reading of an ordinance "related to the realignment of the Economic Development Commission." What that means exactly is unknown - no written ordinance or other information was provided to council other than what was on the agenda.

Sloan said he thought it wouldn't be right to vote on the ordinance since council didn't have any information on it. Council did not vote on the ordinance and instead voted to have the council's government committee meet with the EDC and SCA to develop proposals for moving forward.

Sloan defended the EDC and also praised SCA. He said both have had success bringing jobs and investment to the county.

Other council members, including Buckmon and Creech, said council needs to have a plan in place before moving forward.

Creech said all he's heard in his first year on council regarding the EDC and SCA is arguing.
Jowers said, "I think we have to quit acting like a bunch of kids and start acting like adults and get this county on track to do what needs to be done."