WINNSBORO — Should Fairfield County become one of a handful of South Carolina counties whose council does not use committees as a matter of doing business?
That question caused contention at the Feb. 11 meeting of County Council and ultimately, council voted to change the way it operates and use work sessions of the entire council rather than committees.
Objections centered on whether the change would discourage constituent participation in government meetings and on whether the change took authority away from individual council members and impaired government transparency.
The issue came to a head when it was time for the council to adopt the 2013 County Bylaws, which had been discussed by council in a work session prior to Monday night’s meeting.
Ultimately, changes to county bylaws passed 4-3 with Vice Chairman Dwayne Perry, Chairman David Ferguson, Councilwoman Mary Lynn Kinley and Councilman Mikel Trapp voting for the change and Councilman Kamau Marcharia, Councilwoman Carolyn Robinson and Councilman David Brown voting against the change.
Brown was against the idea, saying he felt people in his district would be less likely to come forward and speak in a public work session.
“I am just distraught about doing away with committees and standing committees of county council,” Brown said. “Not having committee meetings in a room where people can express concerns … this takes that away.”
Robinson shared Brown’s view, saying it would hurt relations with constituents and reduce the power of the average board member by giving more authority to the county administrator and county council chairman.
That prompted a strong response from Ferguson, who said it appeared some on council thought he and County Administrator Phil Hinely could run the county without the input of the other six county members, something he said was not so. Ferguson then called on County Attorney Jack James to take the podium and address the understanding of a ruling that relates to how the council will be governed.
Robinson asked about Robert’s Rules of Order and was told the chairman has the right to run the council.
In response, Ferguson cited a 2003 opinion written by then County Attorney Thomas Sprott Jr. stating that absent a rule, the chairman rules: “Home rule authorizes council to make its own rules for … council shall elect a chairman and the chairman shall preside. ‘Preside’ means to exercise guidance direction or control. It is also the duty of the presiding officer to enforce the laws or rules applicable to the body to keep order and regulate. ‘Order’ means to regulate. Roberts Rules of Order provide that the chairman shall define all questions of order ….”
Marcharia said that democratic process works better with more inclusion and agreed in spirit with what Brown said. He thought that kind of intimate time to reach out with constituents during committee was of use and needed to be continued.
Perry, having had the opportunity to serve on council with Ferguson and with Brown as chairman, said he could recall only a handful of instances where the committees were utilized fully.
“Committee meetings are open but so are work sessions,” he said. Perry noted that work sessions give the opportunity for discussion.
“I remember times 10 to 12 years ago when I was not on council and saw how business was conducted,” Perry said. “At that time, it did not feel very transparent or forthright.”
Perry noted how government of all levels is following the trend of becoming more transparent. This gives the constituents the right to sit in the audience and also to call their councilperson at any time to voice concerns.
Carolyn Robinson noted how a committee works well when administrators send documents to be discussed with an adequate time in advance. She cited her background as a paralegal for her desire for caution when voting on revised documents. “Unless we have time to take and compare (documents), who knows what may be slipped into a document if no one has time to read through it tonight (before voting),” she said.
She said she was sneered at during a January council meeting when she requested an economic impact study be done with regard to reimbursement of EMS employees. “I felt as though I was discarded as a council member,” she said.
Mary Lynn Kinley took exception to Robinson’s reasoning. “I am appalled at honesty being questioned here tonight,” Kinley said. “That is uncalled for.”
Kinley also said that if trying the work session method does not seem to work well, she was confident council could appeal to the chair and have committees reinstated.
Robinson made a motion that the chairman position be limited to a two-year term per election, beginning in 2015. That motion was voted down 5-2 with Brown and Robinson in favor of the motion and Marcharia, Trapp, Ferguson, Kinley and Perry voting against it.
“If four (members) on this council want to support one person as chair they certainly have the right because they have the same vote as the other one,” Ferguson said. “When we start saying because we don’t like the chairman because of the way the council is going let’s make up the rule so this chairman can’t be chair again. That’s what this is all about. Let’s just be honest and call it what it is. Let’s just come out and say what we need to say.”
Ferguson continued explaining his case.
“When I sat in another chair than this, I can’t say I’ve been 100 percent satisfied,” he said. “What you did 20 years ago does not mean it was right or wrong. It just means that is the way you did it 20 years ago. This is the democratic process. We will execute it on this council and the majority will rule just like it is supposed to be.”
In other business:
• Ex-officio Board and Commission appointments passed for 2013-14.
• Second reading passed on an ordinance to rescind Fairfield County Uniform Solid Waste Ordinance No. 410 and replace it with a 2012 Solid Waste Management Plan that meets 2012 DHEC regulations. The vote followed a public hearing earlier that evening on the ordinance.