It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
MUSC board members reportedly were on a roll on Thursday, having just finished several committee meetings.
Apparently they were cruising through their work.
Their full board meeting was scheduled for 1 p.m. But they were making so much progress that they decided to convene early. Good for them, but bad for the public.
Because this was a public meeting — or at least, it was supposed to be.
The speed session apparently continued, because shortly afterward, they voted to go to into executive session, darn close to the posted start time for the regular, open meeting.
Unfortunately, anybody who had planned to attend the actual public portion of the meeting lost out.
And the state's Freedom of Information Act took another beating.
Ignorance or arrogance
The FOIA clearly states that the public needs to be notified of public meetings, not less than 24 hours beforehand, unless it's an emergency. And there was notification of the meeting, but that doesn't do any good if the board makes a unilateral, game-day decision to meet at a different time than what was posted.
“The only reason you give notice is so that the public has the opportunity to attend,” said Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association. “The burden is on the public body to act openly; the burden is not on the member of the press or the public to say 'Oh, I intend to be there, so follow the law.' ”
Subsequent communication indicated that if MUSC officials had known reporter Lauren Sausser was planning on attending, they would have let her know things were running ahead of schedule.
As nice as it would be if people would RSVP to public meetings, the law does not require this, not even in the most polite city in the country.
And just because you're not sure whether the public is coming doesn't mean you get to change the rules.
“They either did it out of ignorance, which seems unlikely because I know the Medical University has good counsel, or the board did it arrogantly,” Bender said.
Either way, it's not good.
There are criminal penalties for violating the law though Bender says those penalties are next to unenforceable.
Civil cases sometimes result in public bodies having to pay attorney's fees, but not much else.
However, the action that was taken in an illegal meeting could be vacated, Bender said.
That could include the faculty appointments the board made on its consent agenda, what to do with the crumbling building at 165 Cannon St. (knock it down for more parking, if you're interested) and, perhaps most significantly, the 3 percent tuition increases the board approved for medical, dental and pharmacy students.
A public body that skirts the law, intentionally or not, loses the faith of the public.
“It diminishes their credibility,” Bender said.
Wonder if those few extra minutes seem worth it now.
Reach Melanie Balog at 937-5565 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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