Thursday’s editorial calls for a criminal probe of the Waccamaw EOC, after it has repeatedly flouted the state’s open meetings law.
What, exactly, will it take to get the Waccamaw Economic Opportunity Council to stop breaking the law?
We don’t know what all goes on behind the closed doors of their frequent secret sessions, or their pre-meeting meetings. But what we do know is that these sessions appear to be illegal on their face, and that several people much closer to the situation than we are have said so in no uncertain terms.
Board members earlier this month described a slew of topics illegally discussed in closed-door meetings – the payment of certain legal bills, reports from agency heads, changes to personnel policies, even the date of the board’s retreat.
Former executive director Beth Fryar has said she was illegally fired while on Family Medical Leave.
Former board member Richard Smith publicly opposed chairman Zacharius Grate’s decision to effectively cancel board elections and then reschedule them without public notice.
“I think they do not believe they are governed by law, and they set their own rules,” Smith told The Sun News.
Former board member Ulysses Dewitt told The Sun News that he repeatedly challenged Grate about illegally holding sessions in secret and polling board members by telephone for their votes.
“He made jokes about it in front of me,” Dewitt said.
Grate also found amusing reporter Steve Jones’ question as to why he billed the agency $5,207.82 for travel expenses in the first 10 months of the year, laughing and refusing to answer. Grate’s response to Smith, his former board member, was that the board can do whatever it wants as long as the majority of members agree.
This, of course, is patently false. Much of state and federal law concerns what various governmental bodies specifically may not do, and regarding open meetings, South Carolina law is clear: Closed sessions may not be held except for certain specific reasons. The agency oversees $15 million in federal funds intended to help the poor, so the public has a definite interest in its activities.
Less than two months ago, we argued that the board owes the public a full explanation of its secretive ways. None has been offered, and frankly the time for that has passed. What is needed now is a full criminal investigation of the board’s apparent violations of the state’s open-meetings law.
There is a recent precedent for this: This summer, members of the Holly Springs Fire and Rescue Commission were charged with a misdemeanor violation of the law for barring a reporter from attending a meeting in which they terminated the fire chief. Surely, the actions of the Waccamaw EOC rise to the level that they warrant similar consideration.
All these indications may yet be wrong, and the board’s cavalier attitude toward taxpayers’ right to know how their money is being spent may simply be government arrogance at its worst. That, sadly, is the best-case scenario – and local law enforcement should quickly make that determination.