MOUNT PLEASANT — The S.C. Supreme Court has ruled the town violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act eight years ago because of its vague agendas, and another court will decide how much this might cost taxpayers.
Steve Brock, a former town planning commissioner, sued Town Council, claiming it skirted open-government laws around 2007 and 2008 by using special meetings with incomplete agendas to mask controversial decisions — such as a Shem Creek land deal that cost taxpayers $6 million for a tract some felt was worth much less.
The high court ruling will affect cities, counties and school boards across the state who call special meetings, said Jay Bender, attorney for the S.C. Press Association.
“I think it’s an excellent opinion in drawing a distinction between regular meetings and special or called meetings,” he said. “The one problem I see is that now public bodies will issue vague notices of special meetings, and they will include in each of their notices that action may be taken after executive session. Unfortunately, that’s not going to let the public know what action is contemplated.”
Town Administrator Eric DeMoura noted the court found that the town committed “technical violations” of the sunshine law because it retroactively applied 2014 requirements to actions taken several years earlier.
“As always, the town will and already has taken steps to assure full compliance with the court’s decision,” DeMoura said.
For Brock, the court’s ruling marked the closing chapter of a grueling process. It’s frustrating, he said Wednesday, that it took eight years for the courts to rule on issues that have been in the state’s open-records law for a while.
“Sometimes, the court has to remind people of that,” he said. “I consider this a victory for all of us because open government benefits everyone. Open government is the ultimate accountability.”
His attorney, Robert Childs, said he was pleased they won on some issues in circuit court, on other issues in the Court of Appeals and still more with the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruling notes that a lower court already was going to consider whether the town owed Brock any money for his legal costs in bringing the lawsuit — and the high court’s ruling will be considered as part of decision. Childs said Wednesday he has no current estimate of how much Brock will seek in legal fees.
Bender said the ruling essentially builds on a new state law passed last year that clarifies how specific public bodies must be when publishing agendas of their regular meetings.
“I think this helps the public some,” he said of the new law and the new ruling. “I think a more important aid to the public would be if we could get people elected to public positions to recognize that they are in public positions as representatives and not as overlords. I think it’s a consistent cultural problem in South Carolina that people who are elected to positions are elected for their interests and not ours.”
Andrew Knapp contributed to this report. Reach Robert Behre at (843) 937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.