Secret meetings can't be tolerated

No matter the content of a meeting, if it is a meeting called for and/or attended by a quorum of the members of a public body, the public has a right to know - ahead of time.

In South Carolina, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) protects those rights.

Taxpayers, as well as media personnel, have the right to be informed of an upcoming meeting of a "public body." That includes councils and committees.

Barnwell County Council certainly qualifies as a public body but they chose to ignore those rules recently.

Not just once, but twice within five days, a quorum of Barnwell County Council members met to discuss economic development in Barnwell County.

Using email, no published agenda, no advertisement of the meeting and no minutes, council members circumvented the public's right to know.

Chairman Freddie Houston said he did not intend and did not know there was going to be a quorum (majority) of council members at either meeting. But it doesn't matter. The fact that there was a quroum and no public notice means the law was broken.

The People-Sentinel received an anonymous tip last week indicating two specific dates that the county council met in secret without prior notice to the public or the media.

After being questioned prior to the Dec. 10 meeting by a People-Sentinel reporter, Houston explained in open session about the last known council meetings and how the secret meetings transpired.

the state 's FOIA law, designed to protect residents from government gone awry and secret deals, states members of a public body must make their meetings open to the public and they must notify the public by written means as well as notify the media - neither of which was done for council meetings on Nov. 22 and Nov. 27.

The meetings were said to have been to discuss the future of Barnwell County's economic development department, although we have to take council's word as to what was discussed as no minutes were kept.

Houston said they were not trying to have a secret meeting but acknowledged he knew they had too many members present to have proper, legal discussions without prior notice.

Houston said he and council members David Kenner, Joe Smith and Harold Buckmon met Nov. 22 with SouthernCarolina Alliance's CEO Danny Black.

Houston and councilmen Keith Sloan, Joe Smith and Jerry Creech met Nov. 27 with Barnwell County Economic Development Executive Director Marty Martin and EDC Chairman Pete Grady.

None of the council members stopped the illegal meetings. None left the illegal meetings but proceeded to conduct taxpayer's business with the economic development leaders.

A squabble over which organization is going to head up Barnwell County's economic development from here on out is at the core of this particular issue.

Barnwell County taxpayers shell out money each year to support both organizations and we have a right to know what council members are discussing, why this is a point of discussion, and how they plan to spend our money.

Thankfully, someone in the know stepped forward to expose these illegal meetings. However, now we are left to wonder how many more meetings have taken place where county business was conducted when taxpayers were not even aware. Was it done electronically or in person?

How does Barnwell County Council spend your money? What decisions do they make on behalf of the public but make them in secret? We might not have the full picture yet.

And it's not like they don't know about the FOIA. They have been given copies by this newspaper and it is covered in their government training.

Simply put, Barnwell County Council met in secret twice.

It is not a matter of asking for forgiveness at a later time.

It was and is wrong.

It was and is illegal.

And, according to the law, council members can be prosecuted for violating the FOIA law and, if found guilty, serve time for violating the public's trust.

First offenders may be sentenced to $100 and 30 days in jail.Penalties double and then triple of subsequent offenses.

Illegal meetings cannot be tolerated in Barnwell County or anywhere in South Carolina.
Stop it, now.