Mayor, councilwoman exchange barbs

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Shaw, Blackmon-Brace argue about discussing issue in closed session

By Jesef Williams

Lancaster Mayor Joe Shaw and Councilwoman Linda Blackmon-Brace exchanged verbal jabs near the end of Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

Council members were about to vote to enter closed, or executive, session.

That’s when Shaw questioned the need for the closed session, which was to discuss a state Ethics Commission opinion on whether Councilman John Howard’s position as an agent for KMG Insurance constituted a conflict with his role on council.

KMG Insurance offers services to city employees.

Blackmon-Brace requested the opinion from the Ethics Commission and asked that the matter be discussed in closed session.

City Attorney Mandy Powers Norrell got the opinion from the Ethics Commission earlier Tuesday.

It reaffirmed a 2006 opinion that Howard’s position posed no conflict.

Norrell shared that opinion during open session after Shaw expressed his concern.

Blackmon-Brace complained.

She said Shaw was out of line for discussing the item because it had been slated for closed session. She believes it was disrespectful to her and Howard, who was on vacation and not at the meeting.

“I disagree with you discussing this in open session,” Blackmon-Brace said.

Shaw argued that going into closed session would be a waste of time.

“It’s no use spending an hour talking about a lot of bull,” Shaw said.

After some back-and-forth exchanges, Blackmon-Brace motioned to enter closed session. The vote was 4-2, with Shaw and Councilwoman Sara Eddins dissenting.

Shaw said his aim was to move the meeting along, not to argue or embarrass anybody.

Shaw said Thursday that Blackmon-Brace’s role as a local bail bondsman was also slated for discussion in closed session.

At Tuesday’s meeting, he argued that concerns about  a potential conflict of interest with Blackmon-Brace’s business have already been discussed in closed session three times this year.

“We got other things to do and it’s already been a ruling,” Shaw said.

“Is she going to bring it up next month again?” Shaw asked. “I’ll do the same thing to her (speak out in open session), but not if she’s got something new.”

Blackmon-Brace said Wednesday that Shaw violated procedure by talking about a matter that had been scheduled for closed session. She maintains that Shaw wouldn’t do that to a city employee.

“The mayor was out of line for even discussing John in open session,” she said. “(Shaw) didn’t give me or John Howard the courtesy that he gave city employees.”

Shaw said he doesn’t consider Howard and Blackmon-Brace’s issue a personnel matter.

SCPA official: Closed session was illegal

The S.C. Freedom of Information Act allows public bodies to discuss certain items in closed session, including personnel matters.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said this issue is not a personnel matter. It should have been discussed in open session, he said.

“Why shouldn’t it be discussed in public?” Rogers asked. “What are they trying to hide?”

A closed session can be held to discuss the hiring, firing or disciplining of an employee, and council members are not employees, Rogers said.

He also said that calling the item a “personnel matter” is overly broad and it should have been specified on the meeting agenda what the matter was about.

City Administrator Helen Sowell said Blackmon-Brace asked that the matter be included on the meeting agenda.

Sowell and Norrell decided to title the item a personnel matter, though Sowell said it could have been called a legal matter.

“I wasn’t sure that it was an executive session item only,” Sowell said. “She (Norrell) thought it qualified because it involved another council person.”

Contact reporter Jesef Williams at jwilliams@thelancasternews.com or at (803) 283-1152