Advocate's Journal

Freedom of Information Act requires Government Bodies to Announce with specificity why it is going into Executive Session

The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed a trial court decision that upheld the validity of an ordinance of the City of North Augusta, but the court reversed the trial court order by holding that the City of North Augusta violated the Freedom of Information Act.  Plaintiff sued the City of North Augusta, Mayor, and City Council of North Augusta (collective “North Augusta”) claiming a 2013 Ordinance was invalid and that the defendants had violated FOIA for nine months during 2013.  In 1996, North Augusta adopted an ordinance creating a Redevelopment Plan to revitalize North Augusta’s riverfront and adjacent areas. The Redevelopment Plan authorized Tax Increment Financing (“TIF”) bonds and had a term expiring in 2016.  In 2013, the defendants amended the Redevelopment Plan to extend it through 2048 and increase the bonds to a total amount of $55 million.  The plaintiff challenged the 2013 ordinance arguing South Carolina law required an amendment of a Redevelopment Plan to determine the project still met the criteria for a TIF project as it had done in 1996.  Not specifically related, the plaintiff also claimed the defendants did not abide by FOIA when it went into executive session during 2013.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court order concerning FOIA but affirmed the trial court decision upholding the 2013 ordinance.   The court held that for the City to go into executive session, it must do more than state the reason is for a discussion of a “proposed contractual matter.”  The court held the “special purpose” reason for going into executive session must be announced and must meet one of the specific reasons laid out in S.C. Code Ann. §30-4-70(a).  Since North Augusta had violated FOIA by not announcing g the special purpose for which it went into executive session, the court remanded the issue to circuit court to determine what relief, if any, plaintiff is entitled.

As to the 2013 ordinance, the court held that an amendment to the Redevelopment Plan per the TIF Act is allowed and is procedural under S.C. Code Ann. §31-6-80(F)(2).  Thus, North Augusta was not required to hear evidence and make findings as it did for the initial approval of the Redevelopment Plan.  Therefore, the court upheld the trial court’s decision stating the 2013 ordinance adopted by North Augusta was valid.  Donohue v. City of N. Augusta, Op. No. 27530 (S.C. June 17, 2015) (Shearouse Adv. Sh. No. 23).