MUSC Board of Trustees to select chairman by secret vote

Several months after catching criticism for selecting the school's president by secret ballot, the MUSC Board of Trustees has a repeat scheduled this week.

According to the board's August meeting agenda, members will vote by secret ballot Friday to select the board's chairman and vice chairman.

Board Chairman Tom Stephenson said the board's bylaws stipulate that votes must take place by secret ballot but that he has asked a committee to draft language for an amendment that will change that.

"I think the new chairman will be on board with this," said Stephenson, who is in his second term as chairman and can't be re-elected. "I do not expect the board to vote on anything that would be by secret ballot in the next 12 months."

Stephenson said he wasn't aware of any previous efforts to change the secret ballot measure.

"No one's cared," he said.

South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act does not prohibit public bodies, such as the MUSC Board of Trustees, to vote by secret ballot. The election itself must be held publicly, but the paper ballots only reveal the choice of candidate. And the vote must be reflected, by member, in the meeting minutes if any member requests it.

The Board of Trustees amended its bylaws in April to allow members to cast ballots for a new president by phone, which Jay Bender, media attorney for the S.C. Press Association, said he believes is illegal.

"I thought that violated the law then, and I think it violates the law now," Bender said. "There was no way to determine how anybody voted. It astonishes me that these people would take a public office and then hide their actions."

But Stephenson said the amendment was for logistical purposes.

"For years, whenever we elected a president, we voted by secret paper ballot," he said. "We got down to the end, and I said, 'Do I really want to make people drive down from Greenville and Columbia just to vote?'"

The board selected Dr. David Cole as MUSC's new president in April, with all but one board member voting confidentially over the phone.

The board cast public votes in May, ratifying its earlier vote and establishing Dr. Cole as president.

"Some in the media have questioned the legality of our vote, so I've proposed taking an open vote," Stephenson said at the time.

This comes at a time where open meetings laws are eroding. In June, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that public bodies no longer have to publish agendas before their regular meetings and can add to the list of agenda items at any point during those meetings. A month later, the court ruled that autopsy records are exempt from release under the FOIA because they are medical records.