Complaint filed against city of North Augusta claims FOIA violation

November 20, 2018

A court complaint has been filed against the City of North Augusta alleging the city violated the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) during a May 2018 City Council meeting.

Filed in the Court of Common Pleas by plaintiff Perry Holcomb on Nov. 16, the complaint against the city, and the mayor and City Council, says the city violated FOIA by amending a resolution that set the city’s list of projects for Capital Projects Sales Tax (CPST) IV.

During the meeting on May 7, Council unanimously passed an amendment, on motion by Mayor Bob Pettit, to add “New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam” to the list. Providing funding to the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam was not initially on the list included in the agenda, which is posted on the city’s website.

“In Amending the Agenda item, the city and City Council failed to make a finding by the body that an emergency or an exigent circumstance existed if the item was not added to the agenda,” the complaint states.

The South Carolina Code of Laws states that once an agenda for a public meeting is posted, “no items may be added to the agenda without an additional 24 hours before the meeting.”

“However, if the item is one upon which final action can be taken at the meeting or if the item is one in which there has not been and will not be an opportunity for public comment with prior public notice given in accordance with this section, it only may be added to the agenda by a two-thirds vote of the members present and voting and upon a finding by the body that an emergency or an exigent circumstance exists if the item is not added to the agenda,” the Code says in Section 30-4-80.

The resolution listing the projects for CPST IV passed unanimously, and CPST IV passed countywide during the election on Nov. 6. The total amount set to be collected by North Augusta during CPST IV is $30.7 million, with $500,000 allocated to the Lock and Dam.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced their chosen alternative for the Lock and Dam Wednesday, Nov. 14.

The complaint filed Friday by Holcomb and attorney Dione Carroll says by failing to give notice to the public, the city and Council allowed the addition of a project to the agenda “to evade public comment and adequate consideration.”

Upon review of the May 7 meeting, plaintiff Holcomb did speak in front of Council twice during the meeting, once after the amendment passed and once after all business on the agenda had been completed.

In a statement to the Aiken Standard, Holcomb said: “The general public needs to be aware of how they are governed at any level. As my maternal grandfather, with whom I spent a lot of time as a child, told me many times, ‘Son, if you don’t stand up for your rights, then who will?’ Such actions as my complaint addresses are why laws are passed to protect the citizens from political mischief. The SC Freedom of Information Act, on which my complaint is based, is just one of those.”

In the complaint, the plaintiff asks the court declare the city violated FOIA, the court invalidate the vote taken on the resolution, the court “enjoin the city, its Mayor and its City Council from further FOIA violations,” and the court order the defendants pay Holcomb his attorney fees and other legal costs.

A September letter from North Augusta’s City Attorney Kelly Zier to Carroll calls the allegation “baseless” and says the city did not violate FOIA during the meeting.

“Dr. Holcomb’s allegation, as supported by your letter, apparently is asserting the position that Council does not have the right to amend a resolution that is properly on the agenda for consideration at the public meeting. That most certainly is not a valid claim,” says the letter, which is included as an exhibit in the complaint.

Zier echoed that statement Monday night, saying he believed there was “no merit to the action.”

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