heraldindependent.com

County council cannot require attendance

Kevin Boozer Staff Writer

November 23, 2013

WINNSBORO — Citizens complained about Councilman Mikel Trapp’s numerous absences from county council meetings again Monday night but that expression of frustration did not result in an attendance policy change to county bylaws.


The revisions to county council bylaws do not include an attendance requirement. At Monday night’s called meeting of Fairfield County Council, interim County Administrator Milton Pope explained that legally, there is nothing in the South Carolina Code of Law that enabled a county to require attendance at meetings.


Pope said he checked with the Municipal Association of South Carolina, the S.C. Association of Counties and the state to make sure of the law’s requirements and limitations.


Pope recommended council members attend each meeting. New language in the county bylaws addresses attendance and encourages people to attend, but Pope said that requiring council members to attend meetings was unenforceable by state law.


“Any public body can enact (a provision) by ordinance, but whether the ordinance is lawful is the question,” he said.


Instead of a policy requiring attendance, county council voted to include Section 8 of the resolution to amend, restate and ratify the organizational rules and bylaws of Fairfield County Council which states: “Fairfield County Council respects the state of South Carolina’s Constitution as it relates to fulfilling the duties of office as an elected representative of Fairfield County and our oath of office. Each member of Council should attend every public meeting as scheduled by a majority of Council. If, however, for any reason a member of Council cannot attend any scheduled public meeting, he/she should notify the Clerk of Council prior to the beginning of the meeting to notify Council and the public of the reason for the absence.”


Councilwoman Carolyn Robinson drew upon her experience working as an administrative assistant to the Legislature to provide context for the council decision. She noted that the public had no input at the House or Senate rule-making/revising sessions.


“We are at the lowest level and the ground level for people to come before and we have now added a second time so you can not only discuss what is on the agenda that night but the second (public comment time) you can discuss what is on your heart,” Robinson said. “I appreciate what you are doing and bringing items to our attention but most times you only have a minute fraction of what is going on. Government is government and business is business…. Government does not respond and work like you run your household because you have only one or two people to make a decision.”


Robinson addressed Councilman Mikel Trapp’s absences. “If I had my druthers, I’d rather not come because I have been nonstop since early this morning at work all day,” she said. “But that is nothing that bothers you all. I am here because I made a commitment to District 2 and to the citizens to be here and do the best that I know how (as representative).”


Robinson continued that after examining the attendance issue legally council had no authority to censure Trapp. “Unless there is a criminal matter, there is no method for (even) the House or Senate to censure an elected official. There is nothing in the law that has been put together for us to do anything about attendances. The way you take care of that is called the ballot box. And you have to be constantly contacting them and holding all of us accountable for our attendance,” she said.


As Robinson spoke citizen Beth Jenkins made an outburst that got her escorted from the meetings by sheriff’s deputies. As she walked from the council chambers, she shouted that council members should not be paid if they missed meetings.


In a rare response to a public outburst, Interim County Administrator Milton Pope said there was no provision in state law to authorize withholding the salary of a council member who does not attend meetings. He also clarified the distinction legally between boards and commissions having attendance policies when county council did not. Board and commissions are appointed positions, so Pope said the law views those positions differently than elected positions. According to state law, a governing body can establish standards for appointment to boards and commissions.


“Despite the numerous public comments about attendance, (a punitive response for excessive absence) is not enforceable by law,”Pope said.


He, like Robinson, said the voters only recourse to affect a council person who fails to attend meetings is to handle it at the ballot box.


Efforts to reach Trapp for comment were unsuccessful. Earlier this year Trapp claimed to have sent letters and received responses from constituents granting him permission to attend pre-calculus class this fall instead of attend council meetings.


However, no one reported receiving a letter nor could such a letter be produced during a subsequent investigation by The Herald Independent. Trapp’s claims prompted outrage from citizens who continued to make their case for change as the council reviewed and revised its bylaws.