‘It’s ludicrous’: Surfside trying to limit what you can say in town meetings

Surfside election decides three open council seats

David Pellegrino, Debbie Scoles and Bruce Dietrich won the three open seats during the Town of Surfside Beach's election Tuesday night.
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David Pellegrino, Debbie Scoles and Bruce Dietrich won the three open seats during the Town of Surfside Beach's election Tuesday night.

A new ordinance proposed by Surfside Beach officials had residents fuming Tuesday night.

The proposed ordinance, that was scheduled for first reading and eventually tabled, looks to change how town meetings operate. The ordinance would move the meeting start time from 6:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., limit meetings to once a month, restrict what speakers say during any forum, and require residents to register up to six days prior to a town meeting if they want to speak during the public comment period.

With residents only allowed to comment on agenda items, municipal services and operations, council would also reserve the right to reject any speaker by a majority vote, the ordinance states.

According to the ordinance, individuals speaking must avoid commenting on personnel matters, addressing an individual member of council or calling them by name, using profanity, reading letters on behalf of another person, and making any personal attacks against the council and staff.

Additionally, officials will not answer any questions from the public during meetings.

While few council members believe changes would bring “decorum” and ensure meetings are treated as a “business meeting,” residents feel their opportunity to speak openly and directly to town officials is being stifled.

“Is that a blatant attempt to keep people from attending the meeting?” resident Ann Westcott asked. “I don’t know what you people are thinking about but I’m angry.”

Residents questioned how the community is supposed to effectively communicate with council members, noting how town officials and staff often fail to return phone calls and emails. Others said council members are punishing the community for speaking out against them during meetings.

Former Planning Commission members Carrie Johnson and Al Lauer, who were both abruptly fired from their voluntary post along with four other commission members during the Mar. 26 meeting, said they lost their positions because they went against the council. Johnson said the council is now attempting to take away the community’s right to free speech.

Lauer added council is attempting to thwart the will of the people.

“You’ve been deceitful, opaque and conniving,” Lauer said. “Not what I expect from democratically elected representatives.”

Councilman Randle Stevens said the proposed ordinance wouldn’t take away anyone’s right to speak but require residents to comment on facts instead of allowing accusations to be made against council. He said many comments have been made in the past that “hammers” members of council and subjects speakers to a libel or defamation lawsuit.

“No matter what you do, you have the right to state an opinion as long as you’re stating it on facts,” Stevens said. “If you can’t prove it, you’re sitting there facing a lawsuit.”

Stevens said his only objection to the ordinance is altering the meetings start time.

While officials agreed with elements of the ordinance, some criticized how the ordinance was presented to council, noting it should have been discussed publicly prior to scheduling a vote. Officials agreed to table the vote until after council has the opportunity to restructure the ordinance in a workshop.

“This is a cluster and I am taken aback. There are so many changes, it’s ludicrous,” Councilman Mark Johnson said. “We owe it to the towns people to sit down and hash this through.”

Anna Young is the Coastal Cities reporter for The Sun News covering anything and everything that happens locally. Young, an award-winning journalist who got her start reporting local news in New York, is dedicated to upholding the values of journalism by listening, learning, seeking out the truth and reporting it accurately. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from SUNY Purchase College.