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Editorial: SC judge's rebuke of Richland payout a good reminder to all local governments

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Joyce Dickerson (copy)

Richland County Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson, speaking to Councilman Bill Malinowski, announced after a 2018 executive session that the council had "accepted and approved" a settlement, which would have violated state law. The county said she misspoke.

How the Richland County Council squanders tax money isn’t really a matter of concern to people outside Richland County.

What a judge said about one of the council’s most notorious money-squandering escapades, however, is.

That’s because Circuit Judge Jocelyn Newman’s order invalidating the council’s $1 million payout to a county administrator who was unlawfully fired, then unfired, then lawfully fired and then paid off after he threatened to spill the beans on some council members hinges not on whether Gerald Seals deserved the money — that’s a policy question, not a legal question — but on whether the council paid him off in compliance with the state’s open meetings law. Which, Judge Newman found, it did not.

Her take-no-prisoners ruling was the first of two significant victories in less than a week for the public’s right to know how our government is spending our tax dollars.

Neither the Richland County ruling nor the one two days later dismantling the state Commerce Department’s defense of its records-hording tradition broke any new ground. In both cases, the judges simply applied straightforward provisions of South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act and said, yes, you do have to obey the law. But they’re important because state and local government agencies so rarely get set straight on these matters.

That’s not because they don’t often violate the Freedom of Information Act and need to be set straight. They do so routinely. It’s because challenging them in court takes money, time and commitment that most people — and increasingly most news organizations — simply don’t have. So they get away with the violations.

There was never any question that the Richland Council violated the state’s open meetings law when it approved the payout.

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Although the council announced in advance that it was calling a special executive session meeting to discuss a “Personnel and Contractual Matter” involving Mr. Seals, it gave no indication that it was considering a payout that was worth more than three times what state law would have allowed him to collect in a wrongful-termination lawsuit or defamation lawsuit … if he had been willing to file it and put his own actions on trial … and if he had managed to win, neither of which was a given. More significantly, it gave no indication that it might take action after the closed-door meeting.

And although council Chairwoman Joyce Dickerson emerged from the four-hour executive session declaring that no action had been taken, she proceeded to stumble, twice, over her lawyered-up script and accidentally reported what the council had actually done: “accepted and approved” an offer by Mr. Seals’ attorney to settle his never-filed lawsuit.

State law prohibits public bodies from voting on anything that isn’t on a published agenda at least 24 hours in advance. They don’t have to be terribly specific — for instance, the Richland County Council could have complied by saying it was possible that it would vote on a matter related to Mr. Seals’ contract or litigation — but that it has to give the public some advance warning that a vote could be taken. And they’re strictly prohibited from taking any sort of vote — even a straw poll — while meeting behind closed doors.

Yet the council took the position in court that it didn’t violate the law. And the county’s attorney argued that even if the law had been violated, not letting the public know it might take a vote on the “Personnel and Contractual Matter,” and then coming out of the closed session with the votes already lined up, amounted to nothing more than “technical violations” of the law — which misses the point of what the Freedom of Information Act is all about.

Its purpose, as Judge Newman noted, is, quite simply, “to protect the public from secret government activity.” And those “technicalities” are the very essence of that protection.

It’s a lesson that not only the Richland County Council but too many other town, city and county councils, school boards and state governing commissions need to learn.

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