S.C. Supreme Court rules Mt. Pleasant violated state's Freedom of Information Act

S.C. Supreme Court rules Mt. Pleasant violated state's Freedom of Information Act

COLUMBIA, SC (WCSC) - The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled the town of Mount Pleasant violated the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act eight years ago for not being specific enough in its agendas.

Attorney Jay Bender, Reid H. Montgomery Freedom of Information Chair for the USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications College of Information and Communications, says the ruling is a way to give the public an opportunity to know in advance what a public body intends to do during meetings.

Bender said a lot of public bodies had gotten into the habit of publishing vague agendas or none at all, then taking action on items unexpectedly.

"And the public would never know the issue was coming up," he said.

In 2008, Stephen Brock, then a member the Town's Planning Commission, sued the town for not indicating council would take action on an item of discussion at a special meeting held after an executive session. 

The suit revolved around three separate meetings in which Brock argued the town did not provide sufficient notice to residents, according to court documents. The agenda for the first meeting listed only an executive session. A second meeting agenda stated the council would go into executive session and then adjourn. A third meeting agenda indicated council would act on "only one of three items listed for discussion during the executive session."

An initial court ruling and an appeals court ruling sided with the town of Mount Pleasant, which both courts said did not violate the state's FOI law because the law at the time did not require agendas for regular meetings.

However, the Supreme Court said those courts made a mistake when they did not differentiate between regular and special meetings; the high court stated in its decision that the Freedom of Information Act did place requirements of an agenda on special meetings.

"We recognize, and Petitioner does not dispute, that unnoticed items may be added to an executive session discussion at the time of a meeting," the court stated. "However, after the executive session concludes and the public body reconvenes in open session, any action taken or decision made must be properly noticed and, in the case of special meetings, such items may not exceed the scope of the purpose for which the meeting was called."

The supreme court also stated it is "not unsympathetic to the Town's position."

"We, like the trial court and court of appeals, recognize that unforeseen events often occur and Town Council may 'not have known what action it would take—to include on an agenda—prior to discussing the relative legal issues and personnel matters during executive session,'" the court stated. "Our holding does not require the Town to list with specificity the actions it plans to take following an executive session; it only requires the Town give notice that some action may be taken."

Brock did not seek to set aside any of the actions taken by Mount Pleasant Town Council in the three meetings that were the focus of the legal challenge.

The court decision noted the Freedom of Information Act now requires agendas for regularly scheduled meetings and sets forth "a specific procedure for amending agenda during meetings."

"It is the Supreme Court saying that the public bodies must publish agendas for a special meeting and if it is going to take any action after an executive session," Bender said.

The ruling suggests, he said, that if a public body like a city or county government discussed a matter during an executive session it needed to make a decision on, a new meeting would need to be scheduled for that decision to be made and an agenda would need to be published giving the public a chance to know the topic was up for consideration.

A response from the Town of Mount Pleasant was not immediately available Wednesday afternoon.

Copyright 2016 WCSC. All Rights Reserved.