Politics & Government

Transparency task force violated state open-meetings, records law, officials say

The communications and transparency task force, created by Beaufort County Council in response to public and media concerns with government transparency, violated state laws governing public records and meetings, according to county officials.

County Administrator Ashley Jacobs said Assistant County Attorney Chris Inglese wrote in a July 9 email that the creation of the task force — formed over emails from Chairman Stu Rodman to members of council — was in violation of South Carolina’s Code of Laws, Section 4-9-170 and Section 30-4-60. Any commissions, committees or boards must be approved by council and must be backed by an ordinance. All meetings of public bodies must be open, the laws state.

Jacobs forwarded the email to council on July 11, and the members were supposed to vote to approve the committee on July 24. The item was removed from the agenda before the meeting, members said.

Jacobs said the transparency task force will be brought before the executive committee for a vote in August.

Council Chairman Stu Rodman first mentioned creating the task force in a June 30 email to five of the 11-member council: Gerald Dawson, York Glover, Mark Lawson, Mike Covert and Chris Hervochon.

“I am thinking the five of you might be a good committee / task force to evaluate if we need to improve our transparency and, if so, how. I see it as a couple meetings at the most and wrapping up in say 2-3 months,” Rodman wrote.

The five council members selected to serve on the committee are each a vice chairman of a council-appointed board. Rodman selected Covert as chairman of the new committee.

After Rodman emailed the five councilmen, he followed up with an email the next day to the entire council, stating he planned to create the communications task force “to look for better ways for us to communicate with the public and our sister governments.”

Eight days later, Mike Covert’s office issued a press release announcing the formation of the task force and his appointment as chair.

“The citizens of Beaufort County have a distinct right and privilege to know exactly what their government is doing and through transparency of such, we, as publicly elected officials, can be held accountable,” the release said.

Despite this violation and the postponement of the official creation of the committee, Covert said he’s not going to let the transparency task force drop.

“Everywhere we turn, we can probably do a better job,” Covert said. “I think County Council can do a better job at communication. I think the county itself can do a much better job in communication.”

Rodman introduced his idea for the task force days after The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette published a story highlighting an email he sent council members recommending that “transparency” be dropped as a council priority.

On July 5, Rodman wrote an op-ed where he stated that transparency was already a goal of Beaufort County Council.

Last week, The Island Packet reported on the county’s misuse of a government contingency fund and the lack of oversight surrounding it. A reporter found that some of the budget information on the county’s financial transparency website was off by tens of thousands of dollars.

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The Growth and Development Reporter for the Island Packet, Kacen Bayless is a native of Ballwin, Missouri. In the past, he’s worked for St. Louis Magazine, the Columbia Missourian, KBIA and the Columbia Business Times. He graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism degree with an emphasis in Investigative Reporting from the University of Missouri in 2019.