Owners of Beaufort's two horse carriage companies say a city committee met in private to discuss revisions to the tourism ordinance, shutting them out of a process that could dictate how they do business.
Beaufort's Tourism Management Advisory Committee began meeting last year to review the ordinance and suggest changes.
During a City Council meeting last week, the committee's chairwoman presented preliminary recommendations -- some of which would reduce the number of tours allowed each day and overhaul the bidding process for carriage and van tour operators.
Peter and Rose White, owners of Southurn Rose Buggy Tours, and Walter Gay, owner of Sea Island Carriage Co., said they attended some of the committee's meetings, planning to listen and to participate.
But instead of discussing revisions in public, the group often went into a closed session, carriage owners said.
"The carriage companies have not been included in the discussions," Peter White said. "They have pushed us out by letting us attend the first five to 10 minutes and then moving into an executive session. ... We have not been working in harmony at all with TMAC."
Attempts Friday to reach committee chairwoman Heather Winch for comment were unsuccessful.
Minutes for each of the committee's meetings also were not immediately available Friday.
City Clerk Ivette Burgess confirmed the group has gone into closed session at each of its meetings.
"The discussion has been contractual matters regarding bids and processes," Burgess said in an email.
Jay Bender, a S.C. Press Association attorney, called the closed sessions "fraudulent."
"The law does not allow you to have an executive session to discuss bids and processes," Bender said. "The law allows you to meet in executive session for discussion of negotiations with respect to a proposed contract. ... If you're going to be discussing a bid and a process, that has to be discussed publicly."
Mayor Billy Keyserling said he didn't know the group had met in closed session to discuss the ordinance.
Beaufort's carriage tours -- and fighting between competing operators -- have caused problems for years, Keyserling said.
The city allows two carriage companies to operate and puts the spots up for bid every five years. The current contracts expire later this year. The looming deadline prompted council to take a broader look at its tourism ordinance before putting the spots up for bid again.
Keyserling sat on the tourism committee about eight years ago and said that back then, carriage companies would "come in and dominate the conversation."
"We just told them they weren't permitted to talk, but they could listen," Keyserling said. "Peter (White) told me they weren't allowed to talk, but he didn't tell me the (committee) was going into executive session."
Carriage operators should be an integral part of the discussion, Gay said.
"How can they make ordinances that affect our business and our living, and we have no input," Gay said. "It's typical of Beaufort City Council and their subcommittees to make a decision and throw it down everybody's throat. They wait until the last minute and then let people talk for maybe 10 or 15 minutes after they've already made up their minds."
The tourism management committee serves only an advisory role. Only council can change the ordinance. That process would require two votes and a public hearing.
Keyserling said council will continue discussing the preliminary recommendations with committee representatives again at a workshop later this month.
Follow reporter Juliann Vachon at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufort.