For the second straight day, Horry County Council approved coronavirus response policies without allowing the public to listen to the discussions.
The county isn’t alone in this approach — the City of North Myrtle Beach did the same thing earlier Thursday — but those actions stand in contrast to what the cities of Conway and Myrtle Beach have done in recent weeks. Secret meetings are also not in line with state law, said Jay Bender, an attorney and expert on the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
“Horry County has a consistent record of disregard for open government,” he said via email.
In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, North Myrtle Beach on Thursday passed an ordinance ban…
On Wednesday, county council approved an ordinance that would allow the panel to hold virtual meetings. That vote happened via conference call. Before the meeting began, a county spokeswoman confirmed that it would take place but said a reporter could not listen to the discussion. Afterwards, she defended the council's decision.
“The meeting that took place was wholly in compliance with South Carolina state law,” said Kelly Moore, the county’s public information officer.
However, no county official has been able to cite a state statue that permits this type of secrecy.
Under state law, emergency meetings can be held without the 24-hour advance notice that is required for regular meetings. But that doesn’t mean councils can simply shut the public out, and the law requires specific notice to local news organizations for all meetings.
“Nothing in the law allows the meeting to be held in the absence of either notice or attendance by the public,” Bender said. “Notice must be given as soon as is practicable, and the meeting must be convened in public.”
When Conway City Council declared a state of emergency on March 14, the city notified the media more than four hours in advance and provided a way for reporters to listen to the conference call discussion about the city’s coronavirus response. On Thursday, the Myrtle Beach City Council provided nearly three hours’ notice for its emergency meeting about virus-related policies and broadcast the audio of the conference call.
Horry County Government has the technology to hold virtual meetings. The county broadcast a planning commission workshop Thursday afternoon, just not the emergency council meeting later that day.
When asked why the county would not allow reporters to access emergency meetings, Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner said he didn’t know.
“It makes sense to me,” he said of opening those meetings to the public. “To be perfectly honest with you, I have never researched it. I don’t know the law on it.”
Gardner said he would talk to the county attorney about the issue.
“I try to do what’s right,” he said.