Former employee sues North Myrtle Beach over closed meetings

dwren@thesunnews.comDecember 5, 2013 

— A former North Myrtle Beach employee is suing the city over allegations that Mayor Marilyn Hatley and others have violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Mitchell Bellamy, who was terminated this year from his position as a custodian after a decade of employment with the city, says in court documents that North Myrtle Beach officials are not providing specific information about the reasons they meet behind closed doors in executive sessions during City Council meetings.

City officials have not filed a response to Bellamy’s lawsuit, which was filed late last month. City spokesman Pat Dowling said the city follows the requirements of the state law.

No court date has been scheduled.

According to state law, the presiding officer of a public meeting must announce a specific description of matters to be discussed during an executive session.

Hatley, who runs the City Council meetings and announces the reasons for executive sessions, uses “vague” descriptions of the topics to be discussed, Bellamy said. Court documents show closed-door meetings have been held for topics including “pending legal matters” and “a contractual matter” although a specific lawsuit or contract is not referenced. On at least one occasion, Hatley did not announce a reason for a closed-door meeting, according to the lawsuit.

“The law says you must state a specific purpose, and what they are stating is a general purpose,” said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association. “The public is not served well with these generalities and the citizens should be upset about it.”

Bellamy also is suing City Manager Mike Mahaney for failing to include specific information about executive session topics on council agendas he prepares and City Attorney Chris Noury for allowing the alleged violations to take place during meetings he attends. Bellamy’s lawsuit cites 15 instances when city officials allegedly violated the state’s open-meeting laws.

Bellamy – who was primarily responsible for cleaning city-owned beachfront and other restrooms – was terminated for cause in September, according to the lawsuit. Court documents do not specify the reason for Bellamy’s termination. Dowling said Bellamy never raised concerns about the city’s executive session procedures prior to his termination.

Bellamy is represented by lawyer Kenneth Moss, who also represents former public safety director William Bailey in a pending wrongful termination lawsuit filed against the city. Bailey was forced to retire from the city’s public safety department after city officials said he lied to them about the storage of his police weapon after the gun was stolen from his truck. Moss could not be reached for comment Thursday.

In addition to suing over the alleged FOIA violations, Bellamy says the city wrongfully refused to pay him for 300 hours of accrued and unused vacation time when he was terminated. Bellamy wants a judge to order the city to stop violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act and to pay him three times the wages he claims are owed, plus costs and attorney’s fees.

Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.

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