By MINDY LUCAS
A task force formed by members of Beaufort County Council to study and recommend transparency procedures was not in compliance with state laws governing open meetings, county officials have said.
County Administrator Ashley Jacobs said she and members of the county’s legal team were advised by Beaufort County Assistant Attorney Christopher Inglese in an email that the newly created subcommittee was not properly formed and “wholly violative” of state FOIA laws, or laws that relate to the Freedom of Information Act.
Inglese advised the group after he and county council members received an earlier email from Council Chairman Stu Rodman announcing the creation of the task force.
In the email to Jacobs, Inglese referenced South Carolina’s Code of Laws, Section 30-4-60, which governs open meetings. He also stated that any communication by council members announcing the formation of such a subcommittee amounted to a meeting and as such would need to follow proper procedures if council members wished to form the task force, Jacobs said.
The formation of the task force was also announced in a press release sent to members of the media by Councilman Mike Covert’s office on the same day, Tuesday, July 9.
The release stated that Covert, who is running for South Carolina’s 1stCongressional District, was appointed by Rodman to serve as chairman of the “Communications and Transparency Task Force.” Also serving on the task force are council members Gerald Dawson, Chris Hervochon, York Glover Sr. and Mark Lawson, the release stated.
Jacobs forwarded Inglese’s email to council members on Thursday, July 11, informing them of the violation. As the county’s top executive, Jacobs said it is her job to advise council members and make recommendations.
“But it is up to them to follow that guidance and follow the law,” she said. “I imagine that what they’ll do is add it to the agenda for the next council meeting as a discussion item.”
Contacted about the misstep, Rodman said he plans to follow the advice of the county administrator and the county’s legal department.
“We’ll take it up at our next meeting, and whatever we have to do to make it happen legally, we’ll do it,” he said. “We want to do it the right way.”
Rodman described the way in which the committee was formed as a “non-issue.”
“We try to be as transparent as we can be,” he said. “I’ve done several things since I’ve been chairman to make it even more transparent. I don’t know of any place where we’re not being transparent, so I think it’s making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Covert agreed with Rodman on striving to be more transparent.
“We need to be as accountable and transparent as possible to the point of being beyond reproach,” he said.
Covert said he was not made aware of the violation of the FOIA laws by the county’s legal department until after he had sent the press release announcing his appointment as chair to the task force.
“It’s not uncommon for an ad hoc committee to be formed, and according to the county attorney’s office there is a right way to do that, and we need to follow that.”
“And that’s what the county legal department is there to do,” he went on to say. “Make sure everything is always accountable and transparent, so kudos to them for doing it and for catching it.”
Jacobs, however, said she was unaware that a press release had been sent.
“If he sent out something out, that was not authorized by the county,” she said.
County Council is scheduled to meet on Monday, July 22.