Fort Mill School District offered a seat at the municipal breakfast table

Tega Cay City Council members (from left) Heather Overman, Alicia Dasch and Mayor David O'Neal pose for a photo at a Municipal Association event.
Tega Cay City Council members (from left) Heather Overman, Alicia Dasch and Mayor David O’Neal pose for a photo at a Municipal Association event. The three all attended an informal breakfast meeting with other local elected officials recently. (Photo courtesy of David O’Neal).

TEGA CAY — Officials from three of the four municipalities that bump up against each other in this area did something concerned residents have wanted them to for years — meet and talk.

Representatives from the City of Tega Cay, Town of Fort Mill and York County gathered last week for an informal breakfast at Toast Cafe in the city’s Stonecrest development. Not present, however, was anyone from the Fort Mill School District, the one municipality that connects the other three.

York County Councilman Micheal Johnson (R-Dist. 1), whose district includes all of Tega cay and the Springfield area of the Town of Fort Mill, organized the breakfast, he said. The meeting was not publicized.

“It was a chance to get to know each other. I don’t know all the (Fort Mill and Tega Cay) council members and they don’t know me. If there’s a chance we can work together sometime in the future, getting to know each other would be a good start. You have to start somewhere,” Johnson said.

Fort Mill School Board Chair Kristy Spears said Johnson called her after the Feb. 19 breakfast and offered an invitation to the next get-together — if there is one.

“I will be included if/when any future sessions are scheduled,” Spears said.

Although the county and Fort Mill each had two representatives — Johnson and Dist. 7 Councilman Joel Hamilton and Mayor Guynn Savage and Councilman James Shirey for the town — Tega Cay had three, effectively a quorum. Mayor David O’Neal and council members Heather Overman and Gus Matchunis attended for Tega Cay.

For anyone concerned the city violated South Carolina’s open meetings laws by having a quorum at an announced meeting, subsection C of that chapter of the law states: “No chance meeting, social meeting, or electronic communication may be used in circumvention of the spirit of requirements of this chapter to act upon a matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power.” In essence, if no specific business or “matter” was discussed, and/or no action taken, Tega Cay would be in compliance, despite any untoward appearance a quorum may project.

Bill Rogers, director of the S.C. Press Association, said it sounds as if the city did not violate the open meetings law.

“If it was purely social, it would not violate the law,” he said.

Rogers also said if the municipal officials involved are given the benefit of the doubt and there’s no proof, such as meeting minutes, to dispute their account, there’s no opportunity to challenge the meeting as improper.

“It’s a gray area,” he said. “If it was just a get-together, it’s probably OK.”

All the officials interviewed said no business was discussed.

“We talked about planning to talk…about planning,” Johnson joked.

Joint planning is exactly what many residents exasperated by the impact of rapid and sustained residential growth on the school district and general quality of life have said they want. The county, town and city, which are separated by unincorporated “doughnut holes” of property, all control planning and growth within their municipal limits.

“When we work together, there are only good outcomes,” Overman said. “All of the things we do as individual (municipalities) impact each other. We need to make sure we make the right decisions for everyone.”

Overman also said she didn’t realize until she showed up at Toast Cafe that two other city council members would be at the breakfast, otherwise she would have declined. In retrospect, she said, she wants the city council to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

“I think in the (interest) of transparency I would be cognizant of it in the future. I wasn’t aware there would be three of us there. But, it is what it is and no city business was discussed, no votes were taken,” Overman said.

“It can only benefit the residents of our community if we’re all working together.”

She also said she would like to see the school district represented if there is a next time.

“They are a huge factor in all of this, so if they are not at the table, that doesn’t make sense,” Overman said.

O’Neal was adamant that there was nothing improper about the breakfast.

“I cannot tell you how many times we are thrust into situations like this, whether it be economic development luncheons or MASC (Municipal Association of S.C.) conventions, etc.,” he wrote in a text responding to questions. O’Neal even shared a photo of him with Overman and Councilwoman Alicia Dasch at a MASC event.

“I can tell you that no official business is ever discussed (in private). We save that stuff for council chambers,” O’Neal texted.

He joked about an ethics training event he expects all council members to attend in Chester March 1:

“Wouldn’t that be funny if they considered that a quorum!” he wrote in a text.

“I think it is a very promising exercise, Shirey, the Fort Mill councilman, said in a text.

“It is just a way for the different people to get to know each other. It is hard to operate in a vacuum. Without a relationship with the other parties involved, none of us can truly do our jobs to the fullest extent.”

Shirey said he would consider inviting the school district if the breakfast meetings continue.

“Right now we are just keeping it loose and trying to see if ‘meeting’ is going to be able to bear any fruit. If it looks like it is not going anywhere, then we will stop. If it looks like some good things are getting done, then maybe we can invite other groups to join,” he wrote.

That would be welcomed by the school district.

“We are always looking for opportunities to partner with our community,” Fort Mill School District Spokesman Joseph Burke said.

Want to learn more?

To read or download a copy of the S.C. Press Association’s Public Officials Guide to Compliance with the state’s FOIA laws, click here.