Outraged citizens file lawsuit against Mayor, City Council for alleged FOIA violations

In an apparent admission of guilt with regard to FOIA, the Simpsonville City Council reversed a decades long policy of not informing the public explicitly why they are going into executive session. Also, after returning to council chambers, in the past, they have not informed the public about their discussions or even what the vote they were taking concerned. Jay Bender, who represents the South Carolina Press Association, said in a published report in the Greenville News that the Council violated the fundamental provisions of the state’s freedom of information act because it never disclosed the action taken or the position the employee the action was taken against. Bender also said FOIA was violated by not properly disclosing the reason they went into executive session.

The drastic change in policy came less than an hour after the City Council, Mayor, City Administrator, and City Attorney were served with a lawsuit from Simpsonville citizens. The change in the procedure to go into executive session was introduced by Mayor Curtis as she read from the printed agenda. “We are in need of an executive session for the discussion of employment, appointment, compensation, promotion, demotion, discipline, or release of an employee in the Police Department and the receipt of legal advice where the legal advice relates to a pending, threatened, or potential claim or other matters covered by the attorney client privilege.” After the announcement Taylor Graham made a motion to eliminate the first portion of the reasons for executive session stating that it was already discussed in the last meeting on April 4 and if there was nothing new added to discuss it should be eliminated. The motion failed 4-3 with Graham, Sylvia Lockaby, and Elizabeth Braswell voting in favor.

Another change in policy occurred about a half hour later. After the short executive session Councilman Matthew Gooch made the following motion. “With the extent that there may be an issue concerning our last executive session, I move we ratify the action we took at our last Council meeting on Monday, April 4, 2016 and that police chief Keith Grounsell be placed on suspension without pay for 30 days beginning April 2, 2016.” This action was starkly different from the April 4 motion that simply said, “We vote to do what we discussed in executive session.” On a roll call vote, the new motion passed 4 -3 with Graham, Lockaby and Braswell voting against.

According to Marcus W. Meetze, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, “The lawsuit is about the ability of the public to independently examine and determine if Chief Grounsell’s conduct as the chief law enforcement officer for the City of Simpsonville warrants disciplinary action.” The Freedom of Information Act states that, “It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that citizens shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in the formulation of public policy.”

The Complaint alleges the Executive Session was an adversary hearing and that Chief Grounsell demanded a public hearing so that the public could examine the evidence, listen to direct and cross examination of the witnesses and witness how their elected officials are representing their interests.

According to Meetze, there is no legal requirement or obligation that these hearings concerning Chief Grounsell be conducted in Executive Session, but it appears is the custom of Council to conduct business in cases regarding personnel matters in Executive Session.

Meetze stated the lawsuit also alleges Defendants failed to follow the Freedom of Information Act by not stating the specific purpose of the Executive Session. “Recent Supreme Court cases have held that before going into executive session, the council must announce the specific purpose of the session. Plaintiff’s lawsuit alleges Defendants failed to do so.”

Meetze declined to comment on the most recent council meeting and stated that the Defendants have thirty days to file a response to the lawsuit♦

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