Two Charleston City Council members met Wednesday with state Attorney General Henry McMaster to clarify what rights and duties council members have to question a flurry of recent promotions and transfers in the city's Fire Department.
McMaster's unofficial view on the issue appears favorable to Mayor Joe Riley, who has insisted that council has no authority over city personnel matters.
City Council members Jimmy Gallant and James Lewis traveled to Columbia to meet with McMaster and some of his legal staff in the wake of a tense meeting Monday in which Gallant resigned his post as chairman of council's Public Safety Committee.
McMaster said they discussed how city ordinances and state statutes apply to local governments that operate under the strong-mayor form of government.
The council's Public Safety Committee has the authority to discuss and make recommendations regarding the Fire Department, but the final authority rests with the mayor, McMaster said. "They have no executive function. Those functions fall to the mayor."
Riley said Monday's committee meeting was illegal because Gallant had not followed procedure for calling the gathering. Gallant charged that Riley was attempting to stifle debate about the controversial round of personnel changes in the Fire Department.
Gallant has been critical of some nearly 50 promotions and transfers approved by Fire Chief Rusty Thomas in the waning days of his tenure. Some transferred firefighters have said they think the moves were payback for speaking publicly about safety concerns, the need for a new chief and other issues.
Gallant and other council members said Monday's ordeal demonstrated the need for legal clarification on council's role in helping rebuild the department in the wake of last year's Sofa Super Store fire.
Gallant did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday. Lewis said he could not comment on the talk with McMaster because Gallant had requested the meeting.
McMaster stressed that his office has not been asked to give a formal legal opinion on the issue, and that his office merely offered general guidance on what the local and state laws say.
City attorney Susan Herdina said McMaster's interpretation seems to validate the city's position. "It sounds consistent with what the mayor's been saying."