SUMMERVILLE — Town Council broke the state's open government law when it voted on a moratorium that was not on the agenda last week, an attorney who specializes in freedom of information law said.
Dorchester County Council also broke the same law recently when it amended its agenda to vote on a controversial proposal to control growth without publicizing it, S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender said.
"Government officials are like crab grass," Bender said. "If you give them an inch, they'll take a yard. If nobody calls them on it, they will continue to do it."
State law requires public bodies to publicize their agendas at least 24 hours in advance. Amending the agenda on the spot to bring up controversial issues contradicts the law, Bender said.
Summerville Councilman Aaron Brown made the motion at last week's council meeting to amend the agenda to vote on a 90-day suspension of new developments larger than 25 units. The motion to amend the agenda and first reading on the moratorium passed 4-2. The moratorium would go into effect when it gets final approval, which is expected next month.
Brown said he understood that council can amend the agenda with a majority vote, and the town's attorneys didn't tell him otherwise. "We lay people who serve on council try to follow the law, and we rely on the legal advice of our attorneys to advise us," Brown said.
Summerville Administrator Dennis Pieper said state law allows council to form its own rules of order, and he cited a town ordinance that allows council to amend the agenda with a majority vote.
While state law says councils can set their own order of business, the next sentence also says councils can't contradict the state's freedom of information laws, Bender said. If a public body violates state meeting laws, a citizen can challenge the action in court, he said.
Pieper said he asked Town Attorney Kelly Knight Boyd to review the town's meeting ordinance.
Town Councilmen Ricky Waring and Bob Flowers, who voted against amending the agenda, said they couldn't ever remember council bringing up such a controversial issue without advance notice. "I've never seen anything like this happen before," Waring said. "It's disappointing to me if this is how we are going to operate. I'm for open government."
"We had not let the public know we were going to do it," Flowers said. "I've never seen this type of action taken before."
Dorchester County Councilman Jamie Feltner made the motion to amend council's agenda to bring the adequate public facilities ordinance out of committee for a second-reading vote. County Council Chairman Larry Hargett protested, saying council was breaking its own meeting rules. County Attorney John Frampton said a county ordinance allowed council to amend the agenda with a majority vote. But council assigned a committee to study whether the practice should continue.
"That was exactly my concern, that the public did not have previous notice to something that important," Hargett said this week. "I just don't think that's fair to the public."
Feltner said it wasn't fair to the public that the ordinance had been kept in a committee for three months, and his motion was the only way to get it out for public debate. Hargett said he told Feltner he would bring the ordinance out of committee the next month, so it was not necessary to force a vote without public notice.