BENNETTSVILLE, S.C. (Queen City News) – When Rachel McDonald swung open the front door of the City of Bennettsville’s Public Safety Complex on April 11, she expected – at least – a warm welcome. What she got was an order from a city staffer to leave.
“Vacate the building,” was the order McDonald told Queen City News a city staffer, posted inside the public lobby, gave her and at least two other citizens who walked into the building.
McDonald went there to attend a public meeting. She, along with other Bennettsville taxpayers, have closely watched the city’s handling of the hiring process for the next city administrator after current administrator, Max Alderman, announced his retirement recently.
The administrator’s job is to run the day-to-day operations of the city. The advertised salary range for the job is $78,104 to $95,180. The median household income in Bennettsville is $31,866, according to the latest U.S. Census data.
On April 11, the city council held an emergency meeting, listed as a “Special” meeting on the agenda, to interview administrator candidates.
The agenda showed the meeting was set to begin at 4 p.m.
But city surveillance video (the time stamp in the recording is behind one hour, according to the city) shows the doors to the council chambers were closed at 3:55 p.m. The recordings we obtained begin at 3:55 p.m. and the first of four administrator candidates was already inside council chambers at the time.
The agenda shows the first item as a “call to order,” followed by the pledge of allegiance. The state’s open meetings law requires a public body to state the grounds for meeting in private, then a majority vote before a governmental body can enter executive session and close the meeting to the public.
The surveillance recordings do not show whether that happened as the doors to the council chambers were closed at five minutes before the hour, according to the video provided to QCN.
The first candidate didn’t leave the council chambers until 4:26 p.m.
At 4:06 p.m., Bennettsville taxpayer and business owner, Rachel McDonald, walked into the building alongside Bennettsville councilwoman Jean Quick and an administrator candidate. Quick walked into council chambers and McDonald said she was told by the city staffer the mayor ordered everyone to “vacate” the building and she’d have to leave the public lobby during the executive session.
Surveillance video shows McDonald make a phone call inside the lobby.
“I called the police chief,” McDonald told QCN Chief Investigator Jody Barr.
The video shows Bennettsville Police Chief Kevin Miller walk out of the police department door and the pair went outside. Minutes later, the chief, McDonald and the two other women who were told to leave the lobby at 3:55 p.m. walked back inside the lobby and waited.
Miller said he told the women and the city staffer the public had a right to be inside the public lobby and allowed them to wait out the executive session inside.
The mayor would later overrule the chief during the regular council meeting set for 6:30 p.m. that same night.
‘VACATE THE BUILDING’
An April 11 agenda posted to the City of Bennettsville’s Facebook page shows council was set to hold a regular council meeting at 6:30 p.m. The city did not post that notice on its website.
The agenda did not contain a public notice about an executive session, but McDonald and the chief confirmed to QCN the mayor asked for an executive session. A motion was made and the council voted to go into executive session anyway, McDonald said.
The mayor ordered every member of the public gathered at the council meeting out of the building, McDonald told QCN.
Surveillance video shows people starting to get out of their seats and leave the council chambers just 90 seconds into the public meeting. The chief said the mayor wanted the lobby cleared and to force everyone outside.
Police officers, city staff, and the chief all left the public lobby, the video shows.
People who witnessed what happened that night contacted QCN for help.
We attended the next council meeting on April 18, which included an executive session on the agenda. We did not find an agenda posted on a bulletin board anywhere around the building, which is required under the state’s open meetings law.
“An agenda for regularly scheduled or special meetings must be posted on a bulletin board in a publicly accessible place at the office or meeting place of the public body and on a public website maintained by the body, if any, at least twenty-four hours prior to such meetings.”Sec. 30-4-80 of the S.C. Code of Laws
The meeting started at the advertised time. McDonald, who said she and everyone else at the April 11 meeting were kicked out of the public building, signed up for public comment where she spoke out about the mayor’s April 11 order.
“An emergency meeting was called where half of the city council couldn’t attend, and no quote “emergency” was ever communicated to the public and a meeting was held disenfranchising half of this community. Why?” McDonald asked. No one on the council responded.
“The only reason, in my personal opinion, is politics and power,” McDonald said. “This room is not the political property of anyone in this city. It is the property of the people of this city. We all demand real transparency, equal access, and equal rights in how our community is managed.”
McDonald was just one of two dozen taxpayers gathered in the council chambers for the April 18 meeting when the mayor asked for a motion to go into executive session.
“We need to entertain a motion to go into executive session to discuss the city administrator interviews,” Mayor Carolyn Prince announced. The mayor then issued the same order as the one that forced the police chief to ban the public from the lobby on April 11.
“We’re asking all other people vacate the building and wait outside in the area in front of this building for executive session,” Prince said.
This time a fellow council member challenged the mayor’s order.
“I’ll simply say, I don’t know that asking people to vacate the entire building is the answer. That’s a public lobby,” Councilman Allen Taylor told the mayor. “Okay, we have an overflow, so those that don’t fit into the lobby, I don’t know where to tell you to go,” the mayor responded before summoning the police chief to the chambers to get everyone out of the room.
“Chief, this is your building, you have any place else for the public to go? We need some space for these people to wait while we’re in executive session,” Mayor Prince said.
“How would you like me to proceed,” Chief Miller asked. “
Wherever you have a space. We need to have this room cleared of everyone with the exception of city council, our attorney, the administrator, and assistant administrator,” the mayor responded.
“But not the building? Just this area,” Miller asked waving his hand toward the rows of chairs where the public sits inside the chambers.
“Not the building, any place else but in this room,” Prince told the chief. “I just want to make sure we’re on the same page,” Chief Miller said as he ushered everyone out of the council chambers following the vote to go into executive session.
“We’re on the same page,” the mayor said.
The people we spoke with following the Tuesday night meeting – whether it was the spotlight of a tv camera or a packed house – city leaders realized that the building, the process and the entire government belong to the people.
The people of Bennettsville are going to keep watching and so are we. If you have anything you want us to investigate, send us a tip at firstname.lastname@example.org.