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Is Your Planning Board Operating Legally?

The open meetings rules found in the SC Freedom of Information Act most often arise in discussions about city council meetings. However, the requirements of FOIA apply to all those public bodies defined in SC Code Section 30-4-15, meaning that they apply to such groups as planning commissions, boards of architecture review and boards of zoning appeals.
Here are several legal requirements to remember for planning boards:

Annual notice
At the beginning of every year, public bodies must give written notice of their regularly-scheduled meetings, including the date, time and location for each of the meetings. The notice must appear on a bulletin board in a publicly accessible place at the meeting space. If the city or town has a website, then the public body must also post the annual notice there.

Meeting notices 
FOIA also regulates what the boards must do when posting the agendas of individual meetings. They must publicize the agenda at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting, providing it to all those individuals, news outlets and organizations who request that the public body send the agendas to them. As with the annual notice, boards must post the agenda in a publicly accessible place at the site of the meeting. They must also post it on a website, if one exists.
 
Executive session limitations  
Executive sessions occur during city and town council meetings, but they are available for use by other public bodies as well. SC Code Section 30-4-70 narrowly defines the instances in which a public body may enter executive session. Not all of the allowable reasons are circumstances likely to apply to a planning board, but the list includes receipt of legal advice, which occurs with planning boards. 

Before entering executive session, the public body must vote to do so, stating the purpose as specifically as possible along with the  FOIA code section allowing it. The public body may not take action during the executive session, except to return to public session or adjourn. Learn more in the March 2020 Uptown article “Take Care With Executive Session Procedures.”

Education requirements 
The SC Local Government Comprehensive Planning Enabling Act, which authorizes local governments to create planning boards, also requires planning and zoning officials to take orientation and continuing education courses. If the officials on planning boards do not  complete these requirements, they may be removed from office. Similarly, professional employees engaged in planning activities who do not complete these education requirements may be removed from their positions. 

The Municipal Association of South Carolina and South Carolina Association of Counties offer the only state-approved resources for orientation training.

More resources 
The American Planning Association provides a cost-effective means for planning board members to stay current with the legal issues and best practices of the planning field, offering online and onsite education as well as publications. At current prices, entities that pay an annual $121 participation fee can sign up planning board members and elected officials for $68 each. Learn more at www.planning.org/commissioners