FOLLY BEACH — Former Mayor Bob Linville remains indignant about a confrontation with City Council members that happened this summer when he was told to leave their closed-door meeting that included an attorney.
“I’m still ticked off about it,” he said.
He took his beef to the State Ethics Commission, which told him it could not consider the issue. He thought about legal action in Circuit Court. Now he is going public with the incident that has gotten under his skin and stayed there.
Linville said he is angry about being ordered out of the meeting of five council members and attorney Sandy Senn. He said it was a meeting that should have been open to the public because a quorum of at least four council members was present. The meeting further violated the state Freedom of Information Act because the public did not know about the gathering at City Hall and because he was not allowed to stay in the room where it was being held, he said.
“Maybe it’s inconsequential, but the law says you cannot have four council members meeting together,” he said.
Tempers flared when Linville walked into the police department room where the council members were gathered, he said. “Tension in the room began to build and several council members told me, in no uncertain terms, to get out,” he said in his Ethics Commission complaint.
Linville said a police officer was summoned to the scene. He said that he left after being led to believe that he could face arrest.
The council members met with Senn on July 23 to discuss a suit that Councilman Eddie Ellis filed against them on July 19. Senn said her closed-door meeting with the council members was necessary.
“If Ellis had been successful, the personal assets of the sued council members would have been at risk, not just the city coffers. Therefore, defendants had every right to meet with their personal lawyer to mount a defense without the prying eyes or ears of others,” she said in an email.
Shortly after the conference between council members and Senn at the police department, council met in public session to censure Ellis and strip him of his mayor pro-tem position.
A few days later, Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson dismissed Ellis’ suit against the five council members and the city of Folly Beach.
Linville said his run-in with the five council members happened when he went to City Hall to attend an advertised City Council budget workshop. There, he said he learned that the workshop had been canceled and five council members were meeting at the police department.
When he went there, he said a dispatcher told him the meeting was private. Linville disagreed. A police officer was summoned who led him to the training room where the meeting was happening, he said.
“Several council members spoke out loud and said I would have to leave ... to get out,” according to the written statement he made to the Ethics Commission.
Linville filed his complaint with the Ethics Commission on Sept. 11. Herbert Hayden, commission executive director, said the commission does not have statutory authority to investigate complaints about alleged FOIA violations. Such matters must go to Circuit Court, he said.
During his July 23 confrontation with the council members, Linville said he told them that their meeting was not advertised and open to the public in compliance with the FOIA.
Council member Dale Stuckey, who was present at the meeting, said no public information law was violated.
“This was no council meeting. This was no secret meeting. Five council members met with their attorney,” she said.
Senn said the council members were not being sued as elected officials but as individuals. “It wasn’t an executive session. It wasn’t a meeting. It had nothing to do with council. (Linville) refused to leave the room. It was really an embarrassment,” she said.
The FOIA defines a “meeting” as the convening of a quorum to discuss or act upon a matter under the supervision or control of the public body.
“My question is, who was paying for the lawyer?” said Jay Bender, attorney for the South Carolina Press Association. “If Folly Beach is paying for the lawyer for the council members, I would say five members of council gathered in a room would be a meeting,” Bender said in an email.
Such a meeting is illegal if the public is not told at least 24 hours in advance that it will happen, he said.
“If counsel were retained privately by members of council who were defendants, there was probably no meeting. If counsel were provided by an insurance carrier for the town, the gathering would be a meeting,” he said.
Senn said she disagreed. “I don’t think that’s correct under any scenario,” she said.
The insurance carrier was paying her to defend the five council members, but it would not have footed the bill for a verdict against them, which meant their assets were at risk, Senn said.
She said it was appropriate to discuss in private with the five council members her planned defense of the suit, in which Ellis asked for a “proper hearing” before being ousted as mayor pro-tem.
Ellis alleged that council conspired against him and broke FOIA law when it held secret meetings to draft the resolution censuring him and ousting him as mayor pro-tem.
Linville was Folly mayor from 1989 to 1998. He most recently served on council from 2002 to 2006.
Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711.