MANNING – The first reading of an ordinance giving the City of Manning’s Public Safety Committee hiring and firing privileges, which ultimately led to the firing of Blair Shaffer as police chief, may not have been handled in accordance with the state’s laws on executive session matters.
“Discussing an ordinance in executive session is illegal,” said William “Bill” Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association. “There is no reason it should have been discussed that way.”
Rogers said the manner in which the ordinance was established and ultimately passed could be “successfully” challenged in court.
If the ordinance that gave the committee power to fire Shaffer was not legally established, the firing therefore would not be valid.
“From a public relations standpoint, this is a slap in the face to the public to do something like that was done surreptitiously,” Rogers added. “They did not follow the law.”
The law Rogers is referring to is the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that was updated by the South Carolina General Assembly in May 2017.
In accordance with the state’s FOIA, Manning City Council violated state law twice by holding an executive session to discuss a personnel issue without listing the department where the employee worked and by discussing city policy behind closed doors. The second violation could result in nullifying the ordinance, according to the South Carolina Press Association.
The General Assembly specified actions and discussion that can or cannot happen behind closed doors, where the public has no access to meeting minutes or recordings. A copy of the FOIA can be found at www.scpress.org under the heading FOIA with pages 15-19 dealing with public meetings.
“While drafting South Carolina’s FOIA, the General Assembly found the following: The General Assembly finds that it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that citizens shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in the formulation of public policy,” South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson stated in a letter to the public on page 5 of the document.
According to the June 5 agenda for the Manning City Council budget workshop meeting, executive session included “a personnel issue concerning compensation as related to the FY 2019 Budget” and “a personnel matter concerning an Amendment to Chapter 2, Section 2-86, of the City of Manning Code of Ordinances.”
According to the South Carolina Municipal Association, ordinance modifications must receive a second reading before becoming policy.
At Manning City Council’s June 18 meeting, the ordinance passed second reading with Manning Mayor Julia Nelson and council members Julius Dukes Jr., Diane Georgia, Johnny Gordan and Clayton Pack signing it. Council members Sherry A. Welle and Ervin Davis were not present at the meeting. Davis said he was out of town for the birth of a grandchild.
The Sumter Item obtained a copy of the agenda and finalized ordinance with the signatures.
At 4:15 p.m. on July 12, Nelson issued a news release stating Manning Police Chief Blair Shaffer had been fired regarding “issues involving the city’s public safety programs.”
Nelson also stated that “following an evaluation of the city’s public safety programs, the Public Safety Committee voted to terminate” Shaffer’s employment immediately.
Less than two hours after announcing Shaffer’s firing, city council held a swearing-in ceremony for Shaffer’s interim replacement, 30-year law enforcement veteran Anthony "Keith" Grice. No information was given at the ceremony as to how Grice was chosen for the position or when he was first contacted for or offered the interim job.
Though he did not speak, Shaffer, his wife and one of his daughters were present at the July 16 Manning City Council meeting where Councilman Davis made a motion to dissolve all the committees within the city. He cited his confusion and the confusion of his constituents over the firing of Shaffer as his reasons for his motion.
Davis’ motion was seconded by Dukes. Nelson told the council they would discuss the matter in executive session but allowed the motion to be discussed in open session after The Sumter Item told her the matter was not eligible for discussion behind closed doors.
After a heated discussion between Nelson and Davis on the validity of his motion, the mayor asked for a vote. Davis, Dukes, Georgia and Gordon voted to abolish the city’s committees while Clayton Pack was the lone vote against the motion. Pack is on the Public Safety Committee.
Council immediately voted to go into executive session to discuss a “personnel matter concerning the Public Safety Department,” which was a direct violation of the state’s FOIA that requires public bodies to list specific departments when discussing personnel matters. The Public Safety Department encompasses the police and fire departments, and the agenda must state which of those agencies the personnel matter concerns, such as finance, human resources, etc.
For almost two hours, council members met in executive session before returning to council’s chambers in open session. Nelson said there would be no action on the personnel matter.
However, she did say Davis’ motion would be “stricken.” In another FOIA violation, discussing the motion was not on the agenda for executive session.
Nelson said because Davis’ motion was not on the printed agenda that it was not up for consideration; however, without having the matter listed on the printed agenda, a decision was made to strike Davis’ motion from the meeting.
After the meeting, Shaffer said he was confused why he was fired over a matter of public safety. He told The Item that, in February 2018, Manning’s police department was given a score of 100 on its safety program by the South Carolina Municipal Association. He also said during his tenure as police chief, the city has seen its crime rates dip by more than 15 percent.
He has retained legal representation and is examining what his options are.
The FOIA also requires that minutes be taken at meetings. As of early Wednesday afternoon, minutes from the council’s June 5 and June 18 meetings have not been posted on the city’s website (www.cityofmanning.org).
Manning City Council is governed by a weak mayor/strong council form of government where all policies must receive a majority vote of council to become active. The council is comprised of a mayor, an at-large position and five council members – one council member from each of Manning’s five districts. The mayor and council members serve four-year terms with council members serving staggered terms.
The mayor can only vote to break a tie.
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