Secret Road-Funding Meetings Likely Violating Law

Secret Meetings

The Nerve: By Ron Aiken, Jan. 19, 2016

‘It’s not a public body,’ chairman of senate committee says.

The final version of legislation to fix South Carolina’s roads (read: tax hike) is being hammered out right now in secret meetings experts say likely are illegal, The Nerve has learned.

Eight Senators make up the road plan “working group” appointed by Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence) in his role as Senate president pro tempore – Sens. Joel Lourie (D-Richland), Darrell Jackson (D-Richland), Vincent Sheheen (D-Kershaw), Shane Massey (R-Edgefield), Sean Bennett (R-Dorchester) and Wes Hayes (R-York).

The group is co-chaired by Sens. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg) and Raymond Cleary (R-Georgetown) and has met three times, according to published reports.

All the meetings have taken place in secret with no notice given of them beforehand nor have any minutes as yet been made public, if they exist.

Under the South Carolina Code of Laws Section 30-4-20, a public body is defined as “any public or governmental body or political subdivision of the State … including committees, subcommittees, advisory committees, and the like of any such body by whatever name known.”

Attorney Jay Bender is the Freedom of Information Chair at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications and represents the South Carolina Press Association in matters of open records. He says his review of Section 30-4-20 leads to a similar conclusion that working groups are public bodies that may not hold meetings in private.

“I think a committee of the General Assembly cannot meet without giving notice and without convening the meeting in public,” Bender told The Nerve. “There do not appear to be any grounds to hold such a meeting closed to the public.”

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, agrees.

“Of all things that should be public, it should be budget discussions,” Rogers said. “People need to know what is in the pipeline on taxes and spending.”

In response to the closed-door meetings, a growing coalition of community groups is calling for an end to the secrecy and for the Senate to acknowledge that the meetings are illegal.

Executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause/SC John Crangle (who is an attorney) says there is no question the working group is a public body.
“They’re appointed to this group because they’re public officials, they were appointed to it by a public official and the purpose of the committee is to deal with public policy-making,” Crangle said.

“That’s a public body. And I’ll bet they’re most likely meeting on public property and being facilitated by staff and by the the legislature’s schedule if they adjourned early, as Senator Leatherman said. Any argument that they’re not a public body is false on its face.”

Talbert Black, president of the S.C. Campaign for Liberty, says in his view the secret meetings are clearly illegal.

“They’re essentially an ad hoc committee,” Black said. “And they should operate as an ad hoc committee, in the public. They should receive testimony from the public and operate in the open. I think operating in secrecy violates FOIA and is illegal. It’s not in the public’s interest.”

A review by The Nerve of legal opinions in other states show several have ruled that working groups of legislative bodies are public and therefore subject to FOIA guidelines that include open meetings and the keeping and publishing of minutes.

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