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Committee of employees must comply with open meeting law

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         SOUTH CAROLINA         Freedom of Information         Jun 6, 2001    

Committee of employees must comply with open meeting law

  • A group appointed to review bids for towing services violated a state public meeting requirement with an executive session, the state Supreme Court ruled.

Regardless of what it is called, any state agency, committee or government subdivision is subject to scrutiny under the state open meeting law, the Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled on May 21.

The court ruling came in a case arising from a local towing company’s loss of a contract granted by the Myrtle Beach City Council. The towing company argued that the actions taken by a group appointed to recommend a bid recipient violated the state law that requires publicly held meetings.

In June 1995, the Myrtle Beach City Council asked for bids on a towing contract. The city council then appointed city employees to form a committee to assess the bids. Quality Towing Inc. submitted a proposal, but the committee deemed the company’s bid “non-responsive” and disqualified the company from the list of potential businesses. The only other company considered was Auto Body Works.

The city manager, once alerted to the lack of a competitive bidding process, instructed the committee in December 1995 to inspect the Quality Towing facilities in order to re-establish its qualification. However, in a closed meeting held two months earlier, the committee had decided to recommend Auto Body Works for the contract.

Quality Towing sued the City of Myrtle Beach in February 1996, claiming the contract selection process violated the state’s Freedom of Information law. It said the closed meeting prevented it from learning about its “non-responsive” status and prevented it from responding to committee concerns. The trial court ruled in favor of the city in May 1997.

The Supreme Court reversed, finding the city liable for allowing a public body to conduct an executive meeting without notifying the public of its specific purpose. The high court, however, did not agree with Quality Towing’s allegations that the committee improperly took formal action at the closed meeting.

The city argued that the committee was not a public body, rather a committee merely made of city employees who reported to the city manager. The court disagreed and rested its decision on the South Carolina open meeting statute which defines a public body as: “any state board, commission agency, and authority and public or governmental body or political subdivision of the State, including . . . committees, subcommittees, advisory committees, and the like of any such body by whatever name known.”

Quality Towing stated that the committee failed to announce the “specific purpose” of the committee’s session, as mandated by the state law. It argued that the committee made its executive decision to recommend Auto Body Works in secret.

The city contended that although the minutes, provided to the public, did not reflect the specific purpose of the meeting, Quality Towing was aware of the contract discussion. But the court said that the open meetings law is not satisfied “merely because citizens have some idea of what a public body might discuss in private.”

(Quality Towing, Inc., v. City of Myrtle Beach; Counsel for Quality Towing: Robert Childs, Laura Teer, Mitchell, Bouton, Yokel & Childs, Greenville, S.C.) EU

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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