The Medical University of South Carolina Board of Trustees voted in a new school president the way it has routinely been done: secretly.
Individuals cast their votes by phone, one call at a time, forgoing the opportunity to let the public know how each trustee voted.
Board members justify the decision by saying it was based on advice from a lawyer. Besides, that's how the board has handled previous elections.
But S.C. Press Association lawyer Jay Bender says they're wrong. He says the state's Freedom of Information Act assumes votes by public bodies will be done in public. And the FOIA trumps the school's rules.
Certainly it makes sense that the public should know how public officials vote.
In the case of MUSC's president, the vote was 10 votes for Dr. David Cole and seven for Dr. Joanne Conroy. If it were 10-7 for a tax hike, the public would demand to know who voted how. If it were 10-7 for changes to an abortion law, the public would expect - and deserve - information about how each member voted.
Is it ever uncomfortable for board members or council members or legislators?
Sure. MUSC Board of Trustees members chose from three candidates, and one was an MUSC faculty member - a well-liked and well-respected member of the staff. Voting publicly for someone else might feel like betraying a friend.
On the other hand, Dr. Conroy would have been MUSC's first female president. A female member of the board - if there were one - feeling pressure to see that women are represented appropriately, might feel awkward voting for a man instead of a woman.
But serving in a public position means doing things transparently - like it or not.
And while the MUSC board got advice from a lawyer that it was OK to vote in secret, why would members do so?
They are responsible for a huge state agency with thousands of state employees and a multi-million dollar budget that includes state funds. The public should be able to make a reasonable judgment on whether individual members are up to the task.
One board member voted publicly. Had he taken the next step and requested all the votes be recorded, the board would have had to comply, by law. He didn't.
Sadly, as Mr. Bender says, the board's action sends an unfortunate message to the medical community, which is often loath to address problems publicly, that it's all right to keep secrets.
Unless someone challenges the vote based on its violation of the Freedom of Information Act, it stands. If successfully challenged, the board would face voting again - openly.
Regardless of whether that happens, the public and the legislators who appoint people to the MUSC Board of Trustees should be asking each member who his choice for president was - and why he doesn't want the public to know.
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