As South Carolina's new governor touts efforts to make government more transparent, Charleston County Council seems content debating big things behind closed doors.
When council's Finance Committee took up the hot-potato issue of extending Interstate 526 on Tuesday afternoon, it immediately adjourned into executive session to receive legal advice.
When that session ended almost an hour later, council members emerged with a written script of three motions: to reconsider their April 19 decision not to build the I-526 extension; to rescind that decision; and to direct the county attorney to cure the default in the county's agreement with the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank and return to council with options as far as what to do next.
Each motion passed on a split vote.
There was limited public discussion -- Councilman Henry Darby briefly talked about the value of compromise and Councilman Vic Rawl offered a brief explanation of what council had done. Two mayors also were allowed to praise what council had done.
Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said Wednesday the closed session was necessary and by the book.
"We didn't discuss anything but legal matters," he said. "Our attorney is not stupid enough to have us back there discussing anything that isn't executive session material."
Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association, said public bodies often go into closed session to avoid making anyone unhappy on a tough decision.
"It would have been better to have those discussions in public because it's the public's money and the public has to understand its ramifications," he said.
But Bender said he found County Council's split vote "refreshing."
"Typically what happens after these executive sessions is there's no discussion and the vote's unanimous," he added. "At least on its face, it appears that this was a legitimate executive session and an appropriate public vote and outcome."
The lack of council discussion meant the public had few insights into these now-relevant questions:
--Is council's backtracking being done merely to gain leverage with the Infrastructure Bank over its claims that the county must return $11.6 million if it doesn't build the road? Or does a majority now favor building it -- or at least part of it?
--To what extent do council members have their own strong opinions about this decision and to what extent are they responding to the bidding of state and mayoral politicos?
--Do any council members agree with opponents' claim that there is a legitimate legal argument -- such as federal law, which allows a "no-build" option -- to be made against the county having to refund $11.6 million to the bank?
Kate Parks of the Coastal Conservation League, an opponent to 526, said more public discussion among council members would have helped.
"It would have helped answer questions that I have, like, 'Why do you have to rescind the no-build option to approve no build?' " she said.
"To go back on that (April 19 no-build) decision without a clear explanation is, I fear, disenchanting to those who have been involved," she added. "I hope that's not the case because local involvement is so key to good local government."
Others attending the meeting were less concerned.
Ledlie Bell of West Ashley's Crescent neighborhood has been to many public meetings where officials go into executive session. "If you make the effort to get to a public meeting and they go into executive session, there isn't anything much more infuriating," she said.
But Bell stopped short of criticizing council's decision Tuesday because of the legal and contractual complexities involved.
"You can fault the process, but they were in a divisive and very difficult situation," she said. "They have to be careful. They cannot afford to blow it again."
Cindy Floyd, a Johns Island resident and former county councilwoman who opposes the project, also did not bash the decision to go into closed session.
"I have to assume it was all legal advice and contract discussions, which are appropriate for executive session," she said, adding that the motions likely were scripted before the meeting began.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.