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Spoke too soon?

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By Editorial Board

Just because something happens once or carries on for a short time doesn’t mean it will always be the norm going forward.

A few months back, we thanked and congratulated all of our county’s elected bodies for finally noticing their executive sessions properly. For years, the norm on local meeting agendas that included closed-door discussion was generic descriptions like “personnel matter” or “contract.” The state’s Freedom of Information Act makes very clear that such non-specific language is not an acceptable reason to close a meeting in South Carolina, as it lacks specificity. Now, bodies can go behind closed doors to discuss certain matters away from the public’s eyes and ears but they are still discussing public business, so they are required to tell citizens in great detail EXACTLY what they will be talking about in private, including why they are shutting the door in the first place. We don’t think everyone who noticed executive sessions improperly was doing so with willful, bad intent…many were probably just doing things the way they have always been done. However, whether things are done with bad intentions or out of ignorance, they are still done and they are still illegal.

Some bodies took initiative to do things the right thing on their own, some took a little public prodding, but everyone, as of June, seemed to be on the right page. Well, now it’s September and the City of Chester has done some old-fashioned backsliding. Chester City Council met Monday and had three matters listed for discussion in executive session. In our view, two of the three did not meet legal muster as “legal matter – attorney” and “personnel matter – public works director” don’t actually offer any details as to what is being discussed. What should have been listed was something along the lines of “legal matter – discussion of the hiring, firing or promotion of a public works director.” This may seem like nitpicking but keep in mind that a judge ordered Newberry County to pay out more than $13,000 recently for this very offense. Since the council states at nearly every meeting that it either has no money, or can’t tell whether it has any money or not because of incomplete audits, it would seem like the possibility of a large fine would motivate them to handle this matter properly.

This is the least of the city’s problems, of course. One member of the council argued that procurement laws weren’t followed last week involving a decision to pay $12,000 to have Christmas lights put up, there is an ongoing lawsuit over a zoning special exception, the city has no attorney, no city administrator, no public works director, no police chief and no finance director. Partly because of that last opening we mentioned (which has been vacant almost two full years), the city is behind on completing audits, which leads to state funding being decreased or cut off. That’s a lot of heavy lifting. Noticing meetings correctly isn’t. Hopefully they will correct this problem and have legal meetings as the norm going forward.