By Brian Sherman for The Island Eye News
A local attorney has filed a lawsuit against the city of Isle of Palms, alleging that officials have been discussing city business through text messages in an effort to avoid the regulations established by the Freedom of Information Act. Joshua Hooser, an IOP resident, filed his case in the Court of Common Pleas on May 13. “I had been approached by many residents and business owners and other interested parties. Among some of those discussions, it was brought to my attention that Mayor Carroll and the rest of the City Council had begun discussing business outside city channels,” Hooser said. Mayor Jimmy Carroll and the other eight members of the Council chose not to comment on pending litigation. However, the city did release the following statement: “The city of Isle of Palms has always been and continues to be committed to transparency of government action and operations, along with open access to public documents, as provided in the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act (FOIA.) The city actively communicates information, provides resources and access to documents and encourages participation in the decisionmaking process by all residents.” Though he did not respond to an email from The Island Eye News, Council Member Randy Bell addressed the subject during a recent appearance on “Quinton’s Close-Ups,” a web program hosted by Quintin Washington. When asked why the Council has been discussing city business on private electronic devices, Bell responded: “To my knowledge we’re not. That’s not something I’m aware of.” “I don’t personally put a lot of stock in it. I think we have very much attempted to be as transparent as possible,” Bell added. “There’s been complaints that we don’t share the recordings of executive sessions. Well, there are no recordings of executive sessions. By law, we don’t have a transcription of what occurs in executive session.” According to Hooser’s lawsuit, he submitted a FOIA request to the city on Sept. 24, 2020. He claimed that the response came on Nov. 10 but didn’t include all the information he asked for. He said he submitted another FOIA request and was informed on Dec. 10 by City Attorney Jim Hinchey he would need to pay $448.50 – 15 hours at $29.90 per hour – for the information he sought. Hooser claimed that on March 8, the city mailed him a USB drive that included information from Council Member John Moye’s private cell phone. According to the lawsuit, after additional communication between Hinchey and Hooser, the city mailed another USB drive to Hooser. “Upon review, plaintiff discovered group messages with all nine City Council members – more than a quorum – discussing city business. … Plaintiff is informed and believes more group messages exist on the private cellphones of the city’s Council members, violating South Carolina law on meetings,” the suit states. “They didn’t give these to me until I forced them to,” Hooser stated. “The only conclusion I can come to is they were so arrogant to believe they are above the law. Who would continue this behavior knowing they are violating the law?” Hooser said he hoped the court would order the Council not to convene a quorum on a text thread without fully complying with the requirements of South Carolina law.
“That’s my end goal,” he said. “To help steer governments in the right direction so when they are conducting business, they are doing so in an open and transparent way that complies with the law.”