Mount Pleasant citizens deserve transparency in government. That’s a nonnegotiable standard for municipal governments. But the patterns of behavior shown by redacting a town councilman’s name and elected status from a police report at the direction of our legal counsel falls short of that standard.
There are two issues we must now consider: the performance of the town’s outside attorneys in this matter, and how the town should be provided legal services in the future.
The councilman’s behavior in the school incident last fall was the subject of much speculation. I requested the incident report through the town’s formal Freedom of Information Act process. I was surprised to receive a copy of the report with the councilman’s name and his elected status completely redacted.
Shortly after delivery of my FOIA request, the town received a letter from a private attorney threatening both the town corporately and council members individually if the police report was released publicly.
This meant there was an outside attorney, retained by an anonymous source, representing a minor whose name isn’t in the report, attempting to suppress the release of a public document from which an elected official’s name and reference to his public office were redacted.
Amazingly, town attorneys offered no advice refuting the threats of liability made by the private attorney. This was troubling considering the police report had already sat publicly on the police blotter for the required 14 days after the incident. Town lawyers should have immediately advised us of the baselessness of such threats. But they did not.
So, when asked initially by the media to release the police report, I responded that upon advice of legal counsel to avoid possible liability, I was not prepared to do so at that time. Now town lawyers are accusing me of violating attorney-client privilege for that statement. I will stand with the standards of transparency.
Jay Bender, the foremost South Carolina authority on the Freedom of Information Act and government sunshine laws, and legal counsel for the South Carolina Press Association and this newspaper, wrote in a newspaper column published the day after this story broke that there was no legal justification for the redaction of the councilman’s name nor the withholding of the report.
For the sake of transparency, I have serious issues about receiving vague advice regarding personal liability, the legality of releasing a public document, and the redaction of an elected official’s name. I feel now as I did in 2017 that it is time to change our legal representation and time to regain the public’s trust.
The Police, Legal and Judicial Committee voted 3-1 (Councilman Gary Santos objecting) to recommend to council this Tuesday to change our form of legal representation to the in-house general counsel model used by our peer cities. This proposal will be put to a council vote Tuesday night. One reality attending this discussion and vote is that for almost a decade, there have been no competitive bids, no qualitative evaluations, and no review — only votes to increase their fees and extend the contract by years. They are paid over half a million dollars a year and our total legal budget is $1.2 million. The current exclusive arrangement with one law firm is analogous to expecting your primary care physician to remove warts and also perform brain surgery.
I started advocating for change after the controversial procedures, council vote and vague references to council members’ personal liability involved in the settlement of the lawsuit over marsh front property on Ben Sawyer Boulevard that was formerly a TV station but will be developed as apartments. As the new mayor and council, we sought a state attorney general’s opinion, resulting in a 15-page letter issued June 28, 2018, that brought a stinging rebuke from the AG, negative press for the town and loss of trust with our citizens.
But change won’t come easily. Council-lawyer relationships run deep. A FOIA last year produced about 3,000 recent private emails involving the lawyers and a few individual council members.
When elected officials develop too-close relationships with government contractors, transparency is fogged and the fundamentals of good government accountability are often compromised. The citizens of Mount Pleasant deserve better. We will try to deliver “better” Tuesday night.
Will Haynie is the mayor of Mount Pleasant.