Crime & Courts

For hiding things from public, Newberry County must pay $13,000 and be more open

Newberry County Council went into closed-door session improperly and now must pay for not sufficiently disclosing to the public what it was discussing secretly, a state judge has decided.

For its failings, council owes Columbia attorney Desa Ballard, $13,708 in attorneys’ fees and cost, Judge Thomas Russo ruled last week. Ballard sued the county for violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The county council repeatedly announced its reasons for executive, or secret, sessions “in such a general way that the specific topic of the actual executive session was hidden... (and) the public had no way of knowing what was being discussed,” Russo wrote July 7.

Bill Rogers, president of the S.C. Press Association, said Thursday that the ruling sends a message to all public bodies, including city and council councils, school boards and zoning boards.

“That’s a great ruling,” Rogers said. “The public needs to know as specifically as possible what is being discussed behind closed doors.”

The Freedom of Information Act allows public bodies to hold secret sessions to discuss matters such as employee discipline, allegations of criminal misconduct, property sales, contracts and legal advice.

But Russo’s order made it clear that it’s not enough to merely cite broad language, such as “personnel” or “property” as reasons for closed-door meetings. From now on, the county must be more detailed before going into executive session, the judge said.

“They (the council) simply read a boilerplate section of the law,” said Columbia attorney Joe McCulloch, who with attorney Kathy Schillaci represented Ballard in court. “But the public has a right to know why a secret meeting is being held. Now they have to change their ways.”

Ballard’s legal action arose because she was seeking information about a client whose situation might have been improperly discussed in executive sessions.

“This is a huge win,” said Ballard, a veteran lawyer who handles civil cases.

It could not be determined Thursday whether Newberry County will appeal. Boyd Nicholson, the Greenville attorney who represented the county, said by email he had no comment at this time. Newberry County attorney Jay Tothacer declined to comment on Thursday.