Just months after organizing open-meeting seminars for city boards and commissions, Beaufort City Council violated the S.C. Freedom of Information Act by failing to adequately state its reasons for entering a closed session Tuesday, according to a state press association attorney.
Mayor Billy Keyserling made a motion to go into closed session, and Councilwoman Donnie Beer, who seconded the motion, noted the council would discuss personnel and contractual matters regarding property.
However, the council violated the law by failing to describe more specifically the personnel or contract that would be discussed, S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender said.
The "attorney general in South Carolina has opined for years, 'personnel matter' is not a sufficiently specific statement of a purpose to authorize a meeting in closed session," Bender said.
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City attorney Bill Harvey disagreed.
"FOIA has been shaken up by the Supreme Court's decision in June. We are in compliance," Harvey said when asked by a reporter for a legal justification for the closed session. "I love ya and I wouldn't steer ya wrong."
Harvey apparently was referring to the S.C. Supreme Court's ruling in Lambries v. Saluda County Council, in which the court determined that public bodies are not required to issue agendas for regular meetings.
"The Supreme Court in its opinion in June authorized public bodies to have ambush agendas at meetings but it did not do anything to change the law with respect to that statement of specific purpose," Bender said.
"Bill (Harvey) knows better," he added.
In March, after concerns about possible open-meeting violations of various city boards and commissions, city officials and staff arranged a FOIA seminar conducted by the Municipal Association of South Carolina. A presentation by the group's field-services manager is posted to the city's website and addresses legal requirements for a closed meeting.
One of the slides states: "Instead of simply stating you wish to go into executive session to discuss 'personnel matter' you would expand that to include 'personnel matters involving an employee in the public works department.'"
After the meeting, Keyserling said he doesn't see the harm in providing more information. He said he would speak with Harvey and seek further legal advice.
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.
- Seminar on open-meeting laws for city committees held in Beaufort
- Beaufort plans seminar on open meetings for its board, commission members, March 6, 2014
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- Beaufort board's attempt to go 'off record' raises concerns, Feb. 14, 2014