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Surfside mayor says leaked recording of closed session was ‘criminal’

Surfside Beach Mayor Bob Childs said Tuesday night that the person or people who shared a recording of a closed session held on Aug. 20 were breaking the law.

He said he wants law enforcement to investigate the leak.

“Unfortunately, [a] council member or members shared information privileged under law. Executive session is protected under the law, and as such, there are certain ordinances associated with this privilege,” Childs said in a prepared statement at the end of Surfside’s council meeting.

The recording at issue was posted on two Facebook pages, Childs said. The recording could not be found online by Monday afternoon.

The Sun News independently obtained a copy of the recording on Monday. The closed session was part of a meeting where council members debated whether to fire Town Administrator Micki Fellner—in a four-to-three decision afterward, the panel voted not to remove Fellner, who is retiring next spring.

Council members and others in the closed meeting were aware at the time that they were being recorded.

That meeting was called in part because of some council members’ frustrations over the Aug. 17 firing of Planning, Building and Zoning Director Sabrina Morris.

Morris was removed for recording an earlier conversation with the town administrator, Fellner said during the closed town council session.

In the recording, Fellner says she advised Morris in April that she needed to meet with the administrator more often to tell her what was going on in her department. She said Morris did not meet with her frequently, despite that notice and other reminders. Fellner also said that in a conversation at the end of Morris’s tenure, Morris said she was recording the talk and that she had “been recording everything for quite some time now.”

Surfside has a staff policy that prohibits staff members from video or audio recording in the workplace in most situations. The penalty for breaking the policy, according to the town’s personnel manual, is “immediate termination.” Fellner said in the recording she consulted with the town’s labor attorney before she removed Morris.

Investigating the leak

Childs said the town was still trying to decide which law enforcement agency to use for the investigation into who leaked the recording of the execusive session. He said he wanted to use an agency outside of the town.

Anybody who shared the information from the closed meeting or posted links to it “shall also be found to be in violation of Surfside Beach town code,” Childs said Tuesday night.

But Bill Rogers, head of the South Carolina Press Association, said that first amendment rights trump anything in the town’s code.

“It can still be closed to the public, but [attendees] have the right to record it and release it to the public,” he said.

Rogers also said that people who posted and reported on the material would not be culpable.

“It’s just like if the newspaper got it and decided to publish it, they have a right to do so as long as they got it legally. The same thing applies to the bloggers,” Rogers said.

On Wednesday, Childs said he couldn’t make a statement on whether the posters of the recording would be prosecuted.

“I guess this is something that the town attorney would have to look into,” he said.

Chloe Johnson: 843-626-0381, @_ChloeAJ

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