Tuesday, June 9, 2015

FOIA Requires Public Bodies to Meet in Public

Timmonsville Townhall, 115 W. Main St., Timmonsville, SC
PUBLIC MEETINGS The law says a public meeting is a gathering of a quorum (simple majority) of a public body, either in person or by telephone or computer, to discuss or act upon public business. Work sessions, ad hoc committees, retreats, and subcommittee and committee meetings are covered by the law. All meetings of public bodies are open and public notice of the meetings must be given 24 hours in advance.

Who can attend a public meeting?
The public has a right to attend and record or film meetings, work sessions and retreats of all public bodies unless closed for limited and specific reasons.

How do I know when a public body is meeting?
Before the public can attend a meeting, it has to know about it. The FOIA requires public bodies to announce the schedule of regular meetings at the first of each year, and if there is an agenda, to make it available at least 24 hours before the scheduled meeting. Usually, notice is also published in the local newspaper and posted at the place of the meeting. For emergency meetings, at least some notice of the time, place and agenda must still be given.

Where can I find meeting minutes and what should they include? 
Public bodies must take minutes at the meeting. Minutes are considered public records. Though minutes don't have to be in a specific format, they must, at a minimum, include the date, time and location of the meeting, which members of the public body were there and which ones weren't, a summary of the discussions and a record of any votes taken. Minutes of meetings held in the previous six months must be made available to the public without a written request during the public body or agency's business hours. 

When can a public body close its meeting to the public? 
All public business should be performed in an open and public manner. However, there are certain exemptions in the FOIA that a public body may use to go into a closed meeting. 

Exemptions include:
• discussions of the hiring, firing, promotion or discipline of an employee or student • discussion of contract negotiations, including the sale of property

• receipt of legal advice (Public bodies may receive legal advice behind closed doors when it relates to a pending claim, the position of the public body in an adversarial matter or any matter covered by attorney-client privilege. Such exemptions are put in the law to provide shelter when necessary. Having an attorney present is not a carte blanche excuse for secrecy.

• discussion of security personnel or devices

• discussions that may lead to criminal prosecution

• discussion of business recruitment/economic development When can a public body go into a closed meeting? Before a public body may go into a closed meeting (also known as Executive Session), it must make a motion in open session, stating the purpose of the closed meeting and identifying the specific exemption that covers the topic. A general reference such as “personnel matters” is not sufficient. The members of the body must vote on the motion. Can a public body vote in a closed meeting? No votes or actions may be taken in the closed session. All votes must be made in front of the public.

Can I record a meeting?
Public meetings, except for executive sessions, may be recorded or filmed, provided you don't interfere with the meeting.

The Timmonsville Town Council normally meets on first Tuesday of every month @7pm on 115 E Main St, (The old Pee Dee State Bank building) in Timmonsville, SC 29161.

Got questions call? Phone: (843) 346-7942

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