What if the board of a public agency voted on the largest public debt sale in the history of South Carolina, and nobody outside the agency was there to hear about it? That’s pretty much what happened last Thursday when the Santee Cooper board approved the sale of $1.34 billion in bonds at a “special” unscheduled meeting in Moncks Corner.
The public utility contends it complied with the state Freedom of Information Act by putting up a notice in the lobby of its central office in Moncks Corner, and by a brief posting on its website Tuesday night.
But the agency failed to notify local media outlets as required by law. That included The Post and Courier, which had requested to be notified of all meetings in advance. That, too, is a separate legal requirement of the FOIA.
The Post and Courier wasn’t notified because the manager of corporate communications was on vacation, a company spokesman explained. That there are other employees in that corporate office suggests, well, a lack of communication.
Moreover, the agency does not routinely provide notification of board meetings to the many other newspapers in the Santee Cooper service area. Santee Cooper serves directly or indirectly customers in all 46 counties of South Carolina.
“They’re breaking the law,” said Jay Bender, the attorney for the S.C. Press Association and a leading authority on the FOIA.
The failure to meet notification standards demands a change in Santee-Cooper policy. Indeed, failure to comply with the FOIA could put the board’s recent action on the bond issue in jeopardy.
“Somebody could bring a lawsuit to set it aside, and the Supreme Court has in the past upheld the setting aside of actions taken illegally by public bodies at meetings where notice was not provided,” Mr. Bender said.
Clearly, that’s a concern for the utility, since the bond issue is being put back on the agenda of the regularly scheduled Aug. 19 meeting.
Plus, corporate communications officials are considering other improvements, including a higher level of notification.
It’s essential. Failure to do so will feed the criticism that the agency lacks public oversight and accountability.
Santee Cooper’s board decides matters that are of intense interest to ratepayers across much of the state.
As trustees of the public agency, board members have a duty to provide the public with as much information as possible. That starts with making the public aware of when and where board meetings are to be held, and what’s on the agenda.
Meeting notices on the bulletin board at company headquarters in Moncks Corner and on the corporate web site just don’t get the job done.