WINNSBORO — Should county employees be allowed to serve on commissions that are appointed by county council? That question was at the heart of a spirited discussion at the Sept. 10 Fairfield County Council meeting.
During council discussion time, District 2. Councilwoman Carolyn Robinson brought up a resignation that took place on the board committee that oversees the Fairfield County Council on Aging.
She then used council discussion time in the public forum to recommend Bernard Steve McDonald, a Fairfield County sheriff’s deputy, for the position.
Council Chairman David Ferguson responded by ruling Robinson out of order since there was no agenda item dealing with the nomination of a person to that particular committee.
Robinson, however, said she was correct to bring forward the issue during county council discussion time and that she in no way skirted the agenda. She questioned if there were guidelines for what county council members could bring up during the county council discussion time.
However, the council moved on from the issue, agreeing with Ferguson that it was not properly included on the agenda. In a June 2012 appellate court ruling, Lambries v. Saluda County Council, that agendas must be posted at least 24 hours prior to a public meeting taking place unless the meeting is a emergency meeting.
The Robison-Ferguson exchange raised a second issue other than meeting agendas.
County Administrator Phil Hinely attempted to clarify points of the situation, acknowledging that, “McDonald is a fine young man, now a Fairfield County employee, who has been in the county a long time. In the past people placed on the board commissions also could serve as county employees but there was concern that practice could put those commission members at cross purposes with the county.”
As a result, county council decided verbally several years ago that they would not nominate county employees for the commissions.
Robinson countered by saying that there was nothing in the written rules to say that council members cannot nominate county employees for the appointed commissions.
She then cited a 1988 SC Supreme Court case, Heath v. Aiken County, that ruled a county sheriff’s deputies technically serve at the pleasure of the sheriff.
“McDonald may have the Fairfield County name and salary, but he serves at the pleasure of the sheriff and not us,” Robinson said.
Hinely informed her that Sheriff Herman Young had asked the county to help administer employee policy. Council agreed to refer to County Attorney Jack James for an opinion on the agenda and appointment issues that came between Robinson and the other council members.
According to county public information officer, Davis Anderson, both positions contain some merit, technically speaking.
“The sheriff’s deputy does work at the pleasure of the sheriff. So, Robinson is technically correct about that point,” Anderson said as he relayed the opinion supported by James.
However, county council has a right to make an oral agreement to not put county employees onto appointed commissions.
The council agreed not to put county paid employees on the commissions to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest or undue influence. Officials were concerned that if appointees had county government jobs that this would take autonomy away from the commissions, causing them to be less effective.
The oral agreement, though, is not a policy as spelled out in the code of law.
Majority also rules when it comes to county council appointments to committees.
If the majority of council members chose to vote in favor of a county employee serving on a commission, then that employee could serve on the commission. There is no firm policy to prohibit such an action, just an oral agreement made in the past that addresses the issue.
Councilwoman Mary Lynn Kinely pointed out another way Robinson’s comment differed from the normal council custom. Typically, persons being considered for nomination to serve on committees are given numbers by the board rather than having their names read at a meeting.
That is done so that board members have more time to notify a potential nominee rather than that person learning they have been chosen through reading the newspaper.
That would spare council embarrassment if its nomination were turned down as well. There may be public relations reasons for the council’s habit, but the habit runs counter to the Freedom of Information Act.
“I could find no support for the proposition that names of people being considered for committee appointments are exempt from FOIA’s open records requirement,” said attorney Carmen Maye, who represents the S.C. Press Association.
Therefore, there is no legal basis for withholding those names during council meetings, as has been a county council habit, meaning Robinson was not out of line to bring up a specific name in the meeting.
The open records requirement of the Freedom of Information Act makes the names of appointees public knowledge that should be stated in meetings.