The Murdaugh murders and the rampant spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant have dominated local news coverage over the past several months. Other stories that might normally garner attention have been squeezed off news pages, forced to take a back seat.
The Charleston Post and Courier has answered with a concerted, investigative effort aimed primarily at governmental entities and their compliance with Sunshine Laws (aka the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA).
Our local news outlets’ coverage of government open meeting transgressions has waned over time due to a variety of factors. Without the constant watchful eye of our news media, however, more and more government discussions are occurring behind closed doors unchecked. By law, many of these discussions should rightfully play out for the public’s consumption.
For this example, let’s talk about the issue du jour: how Beaufort County’s second largest employer — the school district — is communicating with the public regarding COVID-19. At the board’s August 17 meeting, the following motion passed 9-2:
“I move to postpone voting on this motion (school district masking mandate) pending legal and public health advice.”
As promised, the legal and public health advice was presented a few board meeting on August 23. Unfortunately, that advice was delivered in executive session, out of the public eye.
The public had every right to hear the legal guidance and health advice aimed to inform their representatives on a matter which impacts all in our geography ravaged by a pandemic. The Charleston County School Board did the same a few weeks earlier. Their newspaper, The Post and Courier, had this to say:
“… Worse, the board almost certainly violated another state law when it spent two hours locked behind closed doors debating policy (i.e. Proviso 1.108). Chairman Eric Mack said the board received LEGAL AND MEDICAL BRIEFINGS in the executive session – even though medical briefings are not among the reasons state law allows boards to meet in private. …”
Aside from the fact that the FOIA doesn’t permit public health discussions/advice behind closed doors, the public could have benefited from hearing the advice the board might potentially base their votes on regarding imposing universal masking within the school district.
Our board of education prefaced its concerns with instituting a mask mandate with their desire to comply with law in this matter, and justifiably so. But they quickly walked back their good intentions to uphold the law in their disregard for the FOIA, which is also law.
According to board members’ and community members’ comments pre- and post-executive session, clearly more was discussed behind closed doors than legal advice, to include even a brief discussion of school uniforms.
Medical advice related to school start times as well as school uniforms have been discussed in open session in the past. There is a precedent for this. Why scuttle Covid-19 health advice and legal parameters behind closed doors now when the public desperately needs clarity on them?
If board members could freely relay to the public counsel’s advice immediately following executive session, why couldn’t the public hear it directly from the attorney?
We all expect and respect our school board’s resolve to comply with law. The school board also gets high marks for hearing nearly 70 three-minute public comments at their last meeting.
But the board must follow ALL laws, including the Sunshine Law.
JoAnn Orischak served as the District 11 Representative to the Beaufort County Board of Education from 2012-2020. She resides on Hilton Head Island and can be reached at JoAnnOrischak.TheIslandNews@gmail.com.