By RICK BRUNDRETT
One day last month, state lawmakers representing Greenville County held separate meetings in a legislative building on the State House grounds in downtown Columbia – about 103 miles from Greenville – to discuss certain county board appointments that they control, as well as rules governing their delegation meetings.
In the smaller Darlington County, the county legislative delegation doesn’t meet as a group on county matters, according to a delegation member.
In neighboring Florence County, delegation meetings for years have been held in Columbia – about 83 miles from Florence – organized by a Senate employee who works for arguably the state’s most-powerful lawmaker.
As The Nerve repeatedly has pointed out, legislative delegations, made up of senators and House members representing a county, exert considerable control in their respective counties. They make, for example, appointments to various county boards and committees, such as county transportation committees, which approve local road projects to fund with part of the state gasoline tax.
But the delegations don’t always make it convenient for their constituents to participate in delegation meetings.
And state law gives them cover to do that.
Take the 22-member Greenville County delegation – tied with Charleston County as the largest legislative delegation. Three five-member Greenville County delegation committees met separately on June 21 in the Blatt Building, where House members’ offices are located, on the State House grounds before the full Legislature convened that day to give final approval to its state budget version, records show.
The delegation committees met to review applications for appointment or reappointment to the County Transportation Committee, Foster Care Review Board and Greater Greenville Mental Health Board; plus to discuss delegation meeting rules, including those dealing with “speaking decorum,” according to meeting agendas.
Contacted Monday by The Nerve, Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, who is the delegation chairman, confirmed that recent delegation meetings held in the county have been well-attended. Regular quarterly delegation meetings dates and contact information for delegation members are posted on the county’s website.
Asked if the “speaking decorum” rule that the delegation committee discussed last month in Columbia stemmed from attendees’ behavior at earlier delegation meetings, Smith replied, “Some have gotten a bit unruly and gotten personal with members (of the delegation) and others.”
That issue also was on the agendas for the delegation’s Rules Committee meeting in Greenville on June 15 and for a full delegation meeting this week in Greenville, records show.
Asked why the delegation committees discussed that matter and other agenda items in Columbia on June 21 instead of in Greenville County, Smith replied that with the July 4th holiday and the full Legislature’s scheduled to return to Columbia in September, “There’s really a short window of time in there for people to go and take vacations. … The only time we could do that when we could be sure we had a quorum to actually meet was to do it that week.”
Although the June 21 meeting agendas were posted in advance on the Legislature’s website, Smith acknowledged that it’s inconvenient for Greenville County residents to travel to Columbia – about a 103-mile, one-way trip between the capital city and Greenville – to attend delegation meetings, adding, “It’s why we very rarely do it.”
What the law requires – and leaves out
Under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, county delegations aren’t specifically required to meet in their home counties, though the law must be interpreted to allow citizens to “learn and report fully the activities of their public officials at a minimum cost or delay to the persons seeking access to public documents or meetings.”
Contacted Monday by The Nerve, Taylor Smith, an attorney for the South Carolina Press Association, questioned why the Greenville County delegation committees met in Columbia last month. The Nerve, through its parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, is an associate member of the Press Association.
“If the Freedom of Information Act is designed to increase the public’s awareness of public officials, regardless of whether a violation occurred, it’s difficult to see how that transparency is achieved when public officials choose to meet more than 100 miles or so away from where they originally have their duties,” he said.
“Particularly when a delegation chooses to discuss matters,” Smith continued, “which do not impact the interests of people who have not elected them but instead those who have in a place far away from where those (lawmakers) have conducted business normally, it certainly violates the spirt of the act to discuss those matters in that place.”
The S.C. Supreme Court in a 1996 ruling said county legislative delegations are considered public bodies under the Freedom of Information Act, which means they must give advance notice of public meetings, cast any votes during open session, and make minutes of the proceedings available to citizens.
Compared to Greenville County, that’s not much of an issue in neighboring Pickens County, according to Sen. Rex Rice, R-Pickens, who is the Pickens County delegation chairman and was a Greenville County delegation member as well when he was a House member.
Under its rules, the seven-member Pickens County delegation meets once a year in the county during the first week of January before the start of the regular legislative session in Columbia, Rice said when contacted Tuesday by The Nerve.
“It’s a public meeting, and it’s basically a time for the public to come in and present their issues” he said. “It’s basically to have some dialogue with the (delegation) members. It’s not really one where we take a whole lot of action.”
Rice said the delegation might meet “from time to time” in Columbia, though he added, “I don’t even remember the last time we had a called meeting down there, so it’s been a long time.”
‘It’s just like that’
In contrast, the Florence County delegation usually meets regularly once a year in Columbia – typically toward the end of January – to deal with county board and committee appointments under its control, said Republican Rep. Phillip Lowe, who is a member of that county’s nine-member delegation.
“I think Florence meetings are driven toward Columbia because we don’t have a Florence County office,” said Lowe when contacted Tuesday by The Nerve. “We have no delegation office in the county. We have no support staff in the county.”
“If we have a need for something,” he added, “we may call one or more meetings (in Columbia) or sometimes have a stray appointment (to a county board or committee) that we deal with by just sending a letter of support around and we sign it.”
The Nerve in 2019 revealed the practice by some delegations to make appointments only with a letter signed by delegation members. State law “does not permit the circulation of a letter or petition as a ‘vote’ (and) as a substitute for a physical ‘meeting,’” according to a 2007 S.C. attorney general’s opinion.
Lowe, who was first elected to the House in 2006, said since he’s been in the Legislature, a Senate employee who works for Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who is the delegation chairman and also chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, has organized delegation meetings in Columbia.
“I don’t know why it’s just like that,” he said. “She (Leatherman’s staffer) probably would have to come to Florence to help keep that meeting organized, so I guess maybe it’s just quicker to do it up there (in Columbia).
Lowe noted that when he was first elected, he recommended a delegation office in the county to hold public meetings for county residents but was “resoundingly shot down.” Florence is about 83 miles one way from Columbia.
As been his usual practice with The Nerve, Leatherman didn’t respond Tuesday to a written request for comment.
Lowe, whose legislative district covers a small part of Darlington County, also is a member of the Darlington County delegation along with Leatherman. Asked how often the Darlington County delegation meets and where those meetings are held, he replied, “There is no meeting, and if there was, I’ve never been invited.”
“(Sen. Gerald) Malloy makes every appointment” to a Darlington County board or committee under the delegation’s authority, Lowe said when asked about how appointments are made in that county.
Asked Tuesday by The Nerve about whether the nine-member Darlington County delegation meets as a group, Malloy, D-Darlington, who is an attorney, replied, “I’m not going to say anything; my comment on that is ‘no comment.’”
He initially said, though, there are “different ways of doing it”; and that for smaller delegations, “it’s just sort of hard to even do them (meetings) because it’s just two people.”
“People are looking for transparency and all that kind of stuff, and I get it,” Malloy said. “But for me, no disrespect, but that’s not a story for me.”
Kelly Brady, a policy analyst with the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, contributed to this story. Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.
Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.