Was it a social hour or business meeting?

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By The Staff

Several weeks ago, Lancaster County and City councils held a joint gathering at Charley’s Cafe in downtown Lancaster.

Normally, The Lancaster News receives notification of such meetings within the 24-hour period outlined  under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA.) In this incident, special notification about the meeting was not sent to The Lancaster News, as is procedure before any public meetings. Instead, we received a telephone call from someone letting us know about the meeting just before it happened.

We have since learned that both councils did have a notice about the meeting in their respective agenda packets prior to the meeting. However, that notice, listed on County Council’s Sept. 7 agenda as “review of upcoming meetings and announcements” to be found on the packet’s last page, was missing from the packet handed to our reporter at the Sept. 7 meeting. The page was included in a digital copy of the council packet, sent to our reporter via e-mail.

Our reporter already had an assignment that night when we received the call. However, he was able to drop by the restaurant before going to his scheduled interview.

The vital question is: Was such a meeting legal? In other words, did it comply with the state’s open-meeting laws as outlined in the FOIA.

We don’t think it did.

County Administrator Steve Willis and County Council Chairman Rudy Carter defended the meeting when our reporter showed up. They called it a social hour and something that the two governing boards do on a regular basis, with the two councils taking turns at paying for the cost of dinners.

“Normally, if it’s just something social with no possibility of formal action taking place, it’s not a public meeting,” Willis said.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said the meeting falls under a “gray area” of the state FOI. Rogers, an expert on the Freedom of Information Act, who has fielded questions on it for two decades, said social hours where elected officials talk amongst themselves is probably exempt from the state’s FOI law.

However, if public business becomes part of the meeting, it’s no longer considered a social hour, Rogers said. It’s then a real meeting. It doesn’t matter if the business that’s discussed is new or old; it doesn’t matter that there were no plans to take votes on anything, which were among the defenses offered for having the meeting without public notice.

We believe the Sept. 13 meeting was a real meeting because real public business was part of the program.

Information was handed out about a proposal to develop an industrial park at the Lancaster County Airport. The Lancaster County Economic Development Corp. held a meeting in August about the site-readiness process at the airport. A handout distributed at the meeting included information about site certification and construction costs, as well as plans for and examples of spec buildings.

Because of a previous assignment, our reporter wasn’t able to stay for the entire meeting, so we don’t know what percentage of the meeting was social and what was business. But that really doesn’t matter. If just 0.1 percent of the gathering was about public business, it was a real meeting. We believe that meeting crossed that very low threshold.

We also believe officials are fooling themselves with semantics when they try to define such gatherings as “social hours.”

Such joint gatherings have value only if real public business is part of the mix. They have no value if they’re just to give officials from the two councils a chance to enjoy a good meal and compare notes about their golf scores and such.

Because of the criticism the councils have received about meeting, we hope County Council and City Council officials are rethinking future social hours. They should be nixed. But we hope the two councils will continue to hold joint gatherings. There is value in the two councils sitting down regularly to discuss policy issues of mutual concern.

Future gatherings should follow the state open meeting law. They should be posted in advance, and they should be held at a location where anybody who wants to can attend.