It’s time to move Landrum’s city business out in the open

Published 12:13 am Friday, May 8, 2015

Starting at 4:45 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month, Landrum City Council holds a work session in a small meeting room in city hall prior to the regular council meeting in chambers at 6 p.m.


In the work sessions, over a dinner paid for by taxpayers, council members discuss, deliberate, sign documents, and direct action on all sorts of city business.

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Then, at 6 p.m., members move to spacious council chambers, where they progress quickly through the regular council meeting agenda. Very little, if any, discussion occurs on city business, as it has already taken place down the hall. Including the invocation, pledge, police and fire reports, and the occasional swearing in of a police officer or issuance of a proclamation, the regular council meetings are open and shut, sometimes in as little as 15 minutes.


Technically, the work sessions are public meetings.  The city’s website lists the time, the press receives notification, notice is posted on city hall’s door. In reality, however, the meetings feel anything but public.


To get to the work session, you have to be buzzed back through a locked door.  I was told this is for security reasons and a SLED requirement as police documents are kept in an adjoining room. The room contains a large table with armchairs for council and city administrator, leaving little room — three small chairs against the wall —  for press and public.


When the police chief or county council representative attend, they often stand in the doorway. If someone needing special accommodation for a disability were to attend, there is no way to adequately meet their needs.


For a so–called public meeting, there just isn’t room for, or consideration of, the public.


So, if the public can’t fit in a public meeting, how can one find out what is discussed for 75 minutes in these work sessions? As would be the norm for public bodies, you would turn to the minutes.


Except, in Landrum’s case, there aren’t any. According to Mayor Bob Briggs, who sat down with me to discuss this editorial, for the past 16 years of work sessions, no minutes have been kept.


By law, when public bodies hold public meetings, minutes are required to be taken (Freedom of Information Act, S.C. Code Ann. §30-4-90). He was unaware that this requirement pertained to public work session meetings, and so, too, was the city’s administrator.


So, why does Landrum hold separate work sessions and council meetings – two meetings with essentially similar agendas but vastly different in terms of discussion?


City Administrator Caitlin Cothran in an email to the Bulletin, wrote, “I asked the mayor what the purpose was and he said so that the regular meetings didn’t take so long and people didn’t have to sit through all the discussion.”


Mayor Briggs, in an email to the Bulletin, said, “We kept the work session as a pre-meeting because over the years we have had council persons, that given an audience, liked to grandstand and the smaller meeting around a table tends to promote discussion and the outcome of the discussion usually leads to action in the more public meeting.”


Lastly, the mayor reflected upon the days before Landrum had a city administrator, and how it was necessary for council to hold work sessions to handle the day-to-day operations of the city.


The purpose of a city council meeting is to conduct city business through open discussion, deliberation, airing of issues, argument, and finally action, all in full view of the public.


Public body meetings can be long, but at least the public can see, hear and read how their representatives and city employees think, conduct themselves, and get things accomplished. The public attending council meetings deserves a discussion to sit through.


Perhaps there were grandstanders in council’s past.  This current council, however, has deliberative and thoughtful discussions in their work sessions. Why not have this discussion in a “more public” setting where the public can fit in the room to hear it?


Worried about grandstanding? Public bodies have rules of order and decorum; violate them and you are asked to leave or are escorted out.


And Landrum now has a city administrator (the current one, Mayor Briggs said, is number five), a city clerk/treasurer, and an assistant clerk to manage the every day matters.


The majority of municipalities in the state handle city council business in one regular, monthly, public meeting.  The cities that utilize work sessions in addition to council meetings, such as Columbia and Myrtle Beach, hold them in council chambers, where the public will fit, with minutes, agendas and supporting documents available online in advance.


Now that Mayor Briggs is aware of the law requiring council to document work sessions with minutes, he said that change would be made immediately. When asked whether he would consider moving meetings to council chambers, he wrote, “Probably so.”


For Landrum’s benefit, I hope “probably” becomes “definitely.” Furthermore, council needs to, for the sake of full transparency, comply with not just the letter of the Open Meetings law but the spirit as well, and eliminate the back room work sessions and hold one public meeting, in the 60-seat council chamber, accessible through unlocked doors, with agendas, minutes and supporting documents available in advance, for everyone.


It needs to be held at a convenient hour that allows council members and the public time to get off work, eat dinner, and get to city hall to take care of the city’s business.


Because city business is about to get really interesting. Landrum will inevitably feel both positive and negative impacts from the Tryon International Equestrian Center, and those growing pains should be handled openly. Council is also working to pass a local accommodations tax given the likelihood a hotel will be built at Exit 1. That infusion of cash into the city’s budget is a hugely compelling reason to conduct meetings fully in the open and to keep detailed records.


Landrum City Council has, for all intents and purposes, been operating in quasi-private, out from under true public scrutiny and accountability, for years. It’s time to end this two-tiered, more public/less public, undocumented way of conducting the city’s business, and utilize council chambers for the purpose for which it was built.


I encourage the mayor to take the steps to make that happen. I would also encourage more Landrum residents to attend council meetings, to be informed and to participate, in order to help shape the future of their city.


Claire Sachse
Managing Editor