Maybe it’s time for Mount Pleasant to hire its own town lawyer.
Underlying a recent Mount Pleasant political dust-up over whether Oceanside Collegiate Academy principal Brenda Corley would be eligible to serve on Town Council if she’s elected next month is the town’s long-simmering dispute with its legal counsel, Hinchey, Murray & Pagliarini.
Elected officials have repeatedly butted heads with the firm — over whether the release of a police report involving a town councilman should require a Freedom of Information Act request, among other things — since its lawyers told the town over two years ago that it would have to honor a rental agreement with the developer of the controversial Shem Creek parking garage.
In an executive session in May, Town Council, led by Mayor Will Haynie and Councilman Joe Bustos, sought to end the firm’s decade-old contract. But the motion was voted down 5-3.
Mayor Haynie has said the town — now the state’s fourth-most populous municipality with about 90,000 people — needs to hire its own legal staff so everyone is on the same page. And he has a point, as the recent tiff demonstrates.
For its part, the town also must understand that attorneys are hired to provide legal advice, not rubber-stamp everything the town wants to do.
The issue over Ms. Corley’s candidacy was an outgrowth of a “yes” or “no” question posed at a Sept. 16 candidates forum, in which the participants were asked if the town should replace its legal counsel. “Yes,” she answered, as did two other candidates, including Mr. Bustos.
Julia Copeland, one of the attorneys who represents the town, on Oct. 10 sought a legal opinion on whether Ms. Corley was eligible to run for or hold elected office and got a reply the next day. The question is why and under what circumstances she was making the call.
Attorney David Pagliarini, a partner at the firm, told WCSC-TV that, “At no time did any member of town staff, the legal department or any elected official claim that any candidate was ineligible.” He said a political organization was claiming that the call “was somehow an attempt to disrupt the candidacy,” but that “those claims are completely false.”
That raised the hackles of Mr. Bustos, who told the TV station, “I don’t think it’s proper for staff to be calling around finding out if candidates are qualified to be candidates.”
That’s true. But Ms. Copeland isn’t technically a staffer, something Mr. Haynie sees as part of the problem. As a citizen, she has as much right as anyone else to research anything she wants — as long as she’s not billing the town for it. But the timing of the inquiry made it look like she was looking for political ammunition, which underscores a problem with the contract legal arrangement.
The state constitution prohibits holding two elected or appointed offices at the same time, but being a school principal doesn’t qualify as one, according to a legal opinion from the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina. “It’s been accepted practice for charter school employees to run for and hold elected offices,” attorney Margaret Dullanty of the alliance told WCSC-TV. For example, she said, “I believe Joe Loveday, principal of S.C. Whitmore School, is running for Columbia City Council.”
So the real beef is between the town and its legal counsel, whose contract runs through the end of the fiscal year. Hiring a full-time town attorney in Mount Pleasant might not save money, but it would likely help the town heal some needless divisions, grow up and start calling itself what it is — a city.
Editor’s note: This editorial was changed to reflect a correction. Attorney Julia Copeland received a legal opinion regarding a Town Council candidate’s eligibility on Sept. 11, before a Sept. 16 candidates forum.