School Board Member Alleges Abuse of Power by Board Chairman

August 22, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveAn outspoken Charleston County School Board member says she was targeted by the board chairman and threatened with removal from her elected position this month after she forwarded an electronic version of a meeting agenda to a constituent.

In an interview last week with The Nerve, Mary Ann Taylor, who was elected in November, said she wants a public apology from Board Chairman Chris Fraser. She also said she is considering filing a lawsuit against Fraser.

“In my opinion, I did not do anything wrong,” said Taylor, a retired Charleston elementary school teacher with 37 years of experience. “He swatted me with a huge baseball bat, and I did not deserve the swat I got.”

Taylor said she believes she was singled out by Fraser in part because she has dared to challenge the majority of the board on various issues.

“I was not elected to rubber-stamp what the administration demands,” Taylor said. “I don’t think the administration is wrong about everything, but I do my homework. I do my investigation.”

Taylor said she believes she got into trouble with Fraser because the Aug. 10 email she forwarded to the constituent – which, according to her, was passed along to others and eventually got back to Fraser – contained a proposed lease for a controversial new elementary school on Sullivan’s Island.

The document was marked “confidential,” though it was not labeled as such in the Aug. 10 email; the text of the email also didn’t indicate there was anything confidential in it, according to a copy of the email and proposed lease obtained by The Nerve.

Taylor said she did not open the proposed lease and did not know it was confidential.

“All I try to do is good constituent service,” Taylor said, noting she has forwarded other electronic agenda versions to constituents in the past. “I’m just trying to be accountable to the people who trust me.”

Fraser told The Nerve on Saturday that his reply Aug. 11 email was “directed at the board as a whole” and not specifically to Taylor.

“I had no idea she was involved at all,” he said.

Fraser declined comment on Taylor’s demand for a public apology or the possibility of a lawsuit against him. He praised Taylor as a board member, saying she “spends a lot of time and puts in a lot of hard work for the board.”

“I appreciate her service,” he said.

Fraser declined to comment on specifics of his Aug. 11 email, a copy of which was obtained last week byThe Nerve.

“It has come to my attention that the documents delivered to you Wednesday electronically, marked ‘confidential’ for consideration in Executive Session(,) have been electronically transmitted to members of the public, which prior to execution, are not public documents and are protect (sic) by both state ethics law and our policies, excerpts of which I have included below, ” Fraser said in his email to Taylor, the rest of the board, District Superintendent Nancy McGinley and school district attorney John Emerson.

“The Board member responsible for this violation,” Fraser continued, “shall be subject to the appropriate censure or removal, at the discretion of the board and the appropriate provisions of the law referenced below. We will discuss this in public session on Monday.”

Taylor told The Nerve that she was “blown away” by Fraser’s email, adding she believed she previously had a “workable arrangement” with Fraser on school district matters.

The issue of possible disciplinary action against Taylor did not come up at the specially called meeting on Aug. 15 after Taylor said she retained Columbia attorney Todd Kincannon.

In a 17-page letter – a copy of which was obtained by The Nerve – to Emerson on Aug. 12, Kincannon said his client will “exercise all legitimate legal remedies to defend herself from this completely improper attempt by Chairman Fraser to punish her for properly discharging her duties of office under law.

“Further,” Kincannon continued, “Chairman Fraser has made at least one statement connected with this issue that is recklessly defamatory, and I request that you put any applicable insurance carriers on notice of the potential of a libel claim arising from this matter.”

Kincannon also said he was sending a copy of his letter to the lawyer for the state Ethics Commission, referring to Fraser’s “allegations that my client, Mrs. Taylor, has violated the South Carolina Ethics Act.”

Kincannon declined comment when contacted last week by The Nerve. Emerson did not respond to a phone message left at his office.

In his letter, Kincannon defended Taylor’s forwarding of the agenda, saying that disclosure of public agency meeting agendas is required under state law, and that they are not considered confidential.

He also alleged that Fraser deliberately misled fellow board members in his Aug. 11 email response by citing only a portion of the law that says that public officials may not “use or disclose confidential information gained in the course of their responsibility as a public official.”

Under the law, however, that ban applies “only in a way that would affect an economic interest” of Taylor, Kincannon said, noting that there was “no financial motivation whatsoever behind her disclosure” of the meeting agenda and attachments.

“The purpose was to make Mrs. Taylor look like a criminal when she was not, and Chairman Fraser disseminated this fraudulently altered statute to the people he believes will sit in public judgment of Mrs. Taylor on the question of removal, hoping they will throw her out of office in shame, Kincannon wrote.

“If that is not defamation, it is hard to see what could be.”

Kincannon also said that under state law, only county boards of education that oversee local boards have the authority to remove unelected, local board members. Because there is only one school board in Charleston County and its members are popularly elected, the board cannot remove its own members, he said.

In an Aug. 12 email – the same day as the date of Kincannon’s letter to Emerson – Fraser appeared to backtrack from his strongly worded email sent out the day before.

Addressing Taylor, though the email was sent to the entire board, Emerson and McGinley, Fraser said, “I had no idea who actually forwarded the information to anyone and accused no one person of this, and therefore am surprised to receive these emails from you,” according to a copy of the email obtained byThe Nerve.

“That’s poppycock,” Taylor told The Nerve. “He knew it was me. They were gunning for me.”

Taylor said her outspokenness during her short tenure as a board member has raised eyebrows. She said, for example, that several meetings before the Aug. 15 meeting, a top district administrator told her husband afterward that “you need to pull your wife over and talk to her and teach her how to be a good school board trustee.”

Taylor said a number of Sullivan’s Island residents have concerns about the planned new elementary school on the island, including questions about the size and cost of the building, the number of students who would attend there, and the length of the lease.

Under the lease proposal, a copy of which was obtained by The Nerve, the school district would lease 5.61 acres from the town of Sullivan’s Island for 75 years for $10, though it is unclear whether the rent amount is a one-time payment. In exchange, the school district would replace the existing elementary school building with an approximate 74,000-square-foot facility.

Taylor said the proposed building is more than double the size of the current school and would cost at least $26 million.

Taylor said she made a motion at the Aug. 15 school board meeting to temporarily delay a  vote on the lease until a public hearing could be held. Her motion failed by a 5-3 vote; one board member was absent.

Although a majority of the board approved the lease at the Aug. 15 meeting, the topic could be discussed again at tonight’s regular meeting. Taylor said if necessary, she will speak out on that issue and other matters affecting the district.

“I don’t work for the school district,” Taylor said. “I work for my constituents.”

Reach Brundrett (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.