Atlantic Beach Town Hall

SLED is investigation Atlantic Beach's 2019 mayoral election. Photo by Christian Boschult

Atlantic Beach’s town council may have violated South Carolina’s open meeting laws by calling council to a closed-door session without the public being able to hear the reasons for that session, and discussing a proposed drug rehabilitation clinic that was not on the agenda. 

Council met for an executive session via teleconference on June 22. The executive session was followed by an open session with a phone line for the general public to access in order to hear the meeting. 

But the agenda showed no line for the public to call in to the meeting to hear council convene before executive session or to hear the reasons for going into executive session. 

During a recent planning commission meeting, town manager Benjamin Quattlebaum confirmed the council had discussed the proposal during the executive session. 

The rehab clinic “was presented to council on June 22 in executive session with legal counsel,” the town manager said, adding that “the majority of council rejected the proposal.”

Quattlebaum made clear that council did not take a formal vote on the issue during the closed session. 

Under the town’s current land management ordinance, the rehab clinic is considered a permitted-by-right use under the zoning of the property it would have been built on, meaning council would have been risking a lawsuit by rejecting it. Quattlebaum said he eventually denied the application for the rehab clinic due to building code reasons. 

“The executive session, if I recall, was only open to council, if I recall,” said Quattlebaum. “I don’t think the public had access to that line.” 

South Carolina Press Association attorney Jay Bender said the state’s FOIA law mandates that all meetings must be open to the public. If the public was not allowed to hear the council meet before voting to go into executive session, it would have been an illegal meeting. 

“That’s a violation of the law,” Bender said. “The law says very clearly that all meetings are public and must be convened in public.”

If the decision to go into executive session “took place outside of the public’s opportunity to hear it, it was illegal,” Bender added. 

Three items were on the agenda for that June 22 executive session: a discussion of “personnel,” an item relating to a pending lawsuit, and a proposed offer to buy town of Atlantic Beach property. 

The discussion of a proposed drug rehabilitation clinic was not included on the executive session agenda, which was another possible violation of FOIA law. 

“The law has been interpreted to require advanced notice of items even on executive session agenda,” Bender said. “Somebody who is unhappy with the results of the discussion could bring a legal challenge to it and set aside any decision made by the council.” 

Quattlebaum said that the motion to go into executive session did included the discussion of the proposed rehab clinic. 

But there was not an opportunity for the public to hear the reason for the executive session, and rehab clinic was not advertised as a discussion item prior to the motion to discuss it. 

Quattlebaum said that if the town didn’t follow the state’s FOIA law during the meeting, “it was an oversight. If my memory serves, the motion indicated the discussion would take place in executive session.”

Council did take action on the rehab clinic following the June 22 executive session. On July 6, council voted to contract with the Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments for technical assistance in rewriting their zoning laws. 

And on Aug. 5, WRCOG planning and zoning expert Carole Coleman offered her expertise during a planning workshop, advising council members that they could amend the definition of “Hospitals/Clinics” in the city’s land management ordinance to exclude drug rehabilitation clinics and instead classify them as a “special exception,” meaning the clinics would have to get permission from the board of zoning appeals to open up. 

The process could take 60 to 120 days, Coleman said. 

The town council’s agenda for its Monday meeting shows an executive session in part to “discuss employment and compensation to received legal advice related to potential litigation and zoning matter,” which Quattlebaum said pertains to the proposed clinic.

Council is also voting on an ordinance to declare a “moratorium on building on Highway 17.” The drug rehab clinic was proposed for several tracts of land lying adjacent to U.S. 17. Quattlebaum did not definitively say if the moratorium was related to the clinic.  

Bender said the town’s June 22 executive session could expose it to potential litigation.

“If I was the property owner and had suffered because of this illegal executive session, I would be in a position to bring a legal challenge to it,” the attorney said. “It’s another example of elected officials disregarding the law and potentially exposing the local government to unfavorable legal outcomes.”

Mayor Jake Evans did not immediately return a phone call requesting comment. 

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Reporter

Christian is Texas native who welcomes any chance to do a story in the marsh or on the beach. He's a dog park regular and enjoys spending time in the kitchen. He says his margarita recipes are better than anything you'll find in a restaurant.

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