State law considers municipal boards, commissions and committees, such as planning, zoning appeals and architectural review, to be public bodies and classifies appointees as public officials subject to the Freedom of Information Act and the Ethics, Government Accountability and Campaign Reform Act of 1991, commonly referred to as the Ethics Act.
As public bodies, municipal boards and commissions must provide public notice before meetings. A meeting is defined as a gathering of a quorum or simple majority of the members of a public body with the intent to conduct business, regardless of whether votes will be taken. This means that the notice requirement also applies to less formal meetings, regardless of the name used to describe the gathering, including work sessions, retreats and meetings of committees and commissions.
A municipality must provide written notice of regular meetings of all boards and commission at the beginning of each calendar year. Additionally, it must post each meeting’s agenda at the meeting place 24 hours before a meeting. The 24-hour notice applies to called and special meeting as well. Notice also must be given to persons, organizations and news media requesting meeting notification. S.C. Code Section 30-4-80.
The Freedom of Information Act (S.C. Code Section 30-4-10, et seq.) requires all public bodies conduct business in an open and public manner, meaning the public must be allowed to attend board and commission meetings. While the FOIA requires all meetings to be open, it does not require the board or commission to allow public participation.
Local rules of procedure adopted by the board or commission should govern how meetings are conducted and when (or if) it will receive public comment. As with municipal councils, executive sessions are the only exception to the open meeting requirement. There must be a legitimate reason to enter executive session, such as to receive legal advice or one of the other very limited exceptions defined in state law.
Additionally, board and commission members must comply with the state Ethics Act. It prohibits a public official from using his office to gain an economic benefit for himself, a member of his family or an individual/business with whom he is associated. The Act defines “family member” as an individual who is the spouse, parent, brother, sister, child, mother-in-law, father-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, grandparent, grandchild or member of the individual’s immediate family. An economic interest is defined as an interest distinct from that of the general public in a transaction in which the public official may gain an economic benefit of $50 or more.
Under a narrow exception, an official could still participate in or vote on a matter in which he has an economic interest if the economic interest is not greater than the economic interest of other members of his profession, occupation or larger class. However, to avoid an ethics violation, members with a financial interest in a matter that comes before their board or commission should publicly disclose the conflict of interest and refrain from participating in the discussion and vote.
Municipal council members, management staff and employees assigned to support the boards and commissions must help the appointees understand and comply with FOIA and the Ethics Act requirements. The best way to avoid potential controversies and problems is to properly educate board and commission members.