A-tax advisory board recommendations go before Beaufort City Council

emoody@beaufortgazette.comFebruary 24, 2014 

A city of Beaufort advisory committee is expected to formally present its recommendations for divvying more than $200,000 in accommodations-tax grants during a meeting Tuesday.

Those recommendations were determined at a meeting in December, in which no formal minutes were kept, presentations were made behind closed doors and a media outlet that requested advance notice of the meeting did not receive it -- all possibly in violation of state open-meeting laws.

The Tourism Development Advisory Committee makes recommendations to City Council about grants from accommodations taxes, often referred to as a "bed tax," which is a levy on overnight lodging to fund programs that promote tourism and attract visitors.

Chairman Chip Dinkins said Monday there was no intent to keep the public out, and he would type up and make available his personal notes from the meeting.

"That's my plan for tomorrow afternoon, to go back through what people said, what they asked for and what we discussed," he said.

Fourteen organizations made requests for funding totaling nearly $390,000. The city has $210,000 to disburse.

The committee has recommended that $202,000 in funds be awarded to the 14 groups. City Council has final say over how the money will be divided and has typically departed from a number of the committee's recommendations. The council has not announced when it will vote to award the funds.

Those vying for funds made their pitches to the committee Dec. 16 during a meeting that might have taken place with insufficient public notice. Groups vying for the awards were told of the meeting in emails Nov. 12 and Dec. 10, but no similar notice was received by The Beaufort Gazette, which last July formally asked the city to email agendas for all public meetings to two newsroom accounts at least 24 hours in advance.

Public bodies are obligated to honor such requests, according to the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, which includes provisions about how public bodies such as the Tourism Development Advisory Committee publicize and conduct meetings.

DECISIONS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

Two grant applicants said Monday they are bothered by the way the committee reviewed requests.

Larry Holman, president of the Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce, said the committee met with applicants one at a time, shutting the door to a conference room in City Hall while other applicants waited outside. His impression was that the presentations were closed unless it was his time to talk.

"When the sign-up (sheet) is on the outside, that tells me I'm not welcome till I'm called," he said.

Dinkins said he has received no formal open-meeting law instruction from the city and has seen TDAC meetings conducted with the doors both open and shut over the years.

Historic Beaufort Foundation executive director Maxine Lutz said she told several city staff members, then Dinkins that "these doors should never be shut," and asked to sit inside. Dinkins told her the committee wanted to "afford privacy to the applicants," she said.

"There is no privacy when you have your hand out for public money," said Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association and an authority on the state's Freedom of Information Act.

City attorney Bill Harvey said he couldn't say whether the door was open or closed because he wasn't at the meeting. However, "it's not a closed meeting," he said. "If someone wanted to come in, they could have."

MINUTES OF PROCEEDINGS NOT KEPT

On Friday, the city provided the Gazette with a record of the committee's recommendations -- a spreadsheet with the date of the meeting, names of the applicants, a brief description of their projects, the amount they requested and the amount recommended.

However, the votes to determine the committee's recommendations are not recorded -- in fact, Harvey said the committee reaches a consensus but takes no formal votes.

Anyone not in the room when that consensus was formed might have difficulty ascertaining how it was reached. Aside from the spreadsheet and a few members' notes, no other notes were recorded -- not even a roll of committee members present.

Harvey said he was told all five were present.

City manager Scott Dadson said "there are no formal minutes taken in TDAC" and that the committee's recommendations are the only materials forwarded to city staff.

Dinkins said he intends to amend that with his notes, which include comments and discussion from the hour to 90 minutes the committee spent determining allocations.

"Certainly what I sent to council wasn't as complete as it could have been," he said.

State law requires public bodies -- including advisory committees -- to keep minutes of meetings and make them available to the public.

Former chairman Jeff Evans, who was on the committee from 2006 to 2013, said to his knowledge, minutes have never been recorded.

"Tradition," he explained. "That just never happened -- which was probably a bad idea. ... In retrospect, that would certainly be an obvious and probably necessary thing to do."

Harvey said the recommendations, paired with the applications, likely fulfill the minutes requirement, although the time, place and members in attendance should probably be included.

"I think what you have is what they do," he said. "The culmination of what they come up with is the minutes of the meeting."

Bender, the press association attorney, said there's no question meetings should be advertised, and discussions and votes recorded. A report of recommendations "just reflects the result" of the meetings and discussion.

Bender conceded that state law does not specifically state what minutes must include, "so, in theory, that might meet the requirement."

Holman said even if the committee followed the letter of the law, it violated its spirit.

"It's a public thing and in order for it to show complete transparency, there should be a record of what was said and presented and asked," he said.

WHAT'S IN STORE?

Criticism of the Tourism Development Advisory Committee marks the second time in just more than a month that a city panel has been called on the carpet because of its conduct of a public meeting. The Historic District Review Board adjourned a January meeting and stopped recording minutes after one of its members asked to go "off the record." The discussion of board business then continued with a quorum present.

Mayor Billy Keyserling, who said the review board meeting was "just not legal," questioned why the Tourism Development Advisory Committee shut its doors.

"I don't know why the doors would be closed, as a practical matter," Keyserling said.

After questions about the Historic Review Board's meeting, Dadson said formal training sessions on the Freedom of Information Act might be necessary for members of volunteer boards and committees. No plans have been made yet for training, Harvey said.

Keyserling added Monday that a City Council discussion about public meetings and committees is in order.

Dinkins said he already plans to make changes for future TDAC meetings, however.

"I think we'll have a secretary, or someone to take minutes," he said, and added that the door could stay open.

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.

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