Behind closed doors: Behavioral health center discussed by town committee

Palmetto Behavioral Health in North Charleston (Staff/ 5/12/11 Published Caption 5/15/11: Four teens recently escaped from Palmetto Summerville Behavioral Health facility and escaped. All were later caught. Published Caption 6/15/11: Two teens fled on June 5 from Palmetto Behavioral Health's Summerville facility - less than two months after four other teens escaped from the same center.

SUMMERVILLE -- The troubled Palmetto Behavioral Health treatment center was discussed behind closed doors at a Town Council committee meeting Wednesday, apparently in violation of the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Councilman Walter Bailey, the Public Safety Committee chairman, said only that the panel discussed legal matters concerning the center and did not specify what they were.

The FOI law allows closed-door meetings for the receipt of legal advice, but Town Attorney Mark Stokes was not present.

Bailey, a former solicitor, contended that as an attorney he was qualified to give legal advice.

"Legal matters is not a sufficient reason" to go into closed session, said Jay Bender, South Carolina Press Association attorney, and "I don't believe you can be a member of the committee and give legal advice."

When told that opinion, Bailey said, "That's what it is," and proceeded to other committee business.

The committee took no action regarding the treatment center.

The meeting was the first held by council members since telling Stokes last week to review the center's compliance with business license, code and zoning laws, trying to press its managers to improve security after two recent incidents of clients running from the center and an attack on a center staff member.

The 60-bed center treats younger and older adolescents for sexual aggression, substance abuse and post traumatic stress. It operates on Midland Parkway near medical offices, nursing homes and residential neighborhoods.

Among its clients were youths referred from juvenile justice programs.

Civic leaders in a May walk-through found what they considered security and safety lapses. After a surprise inspection a few days later, S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control inspectors cited the center for safety violations.

The town's actions are part of a crackdown by local authorities, state agencies and legislators to have the center "make changes or they're going to be out of business," as Rep. Chris Murphy, R-Summerville, said.

A Palmetto Behavioral Health official said the center no longer treats the juvenile justice program clients and the center is making security improvements.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at @bopete.