Waccamaw economic council sees funds restricted again

The Waccamaw Economic Opportunity Council violated its bylaws by firing its executive director without prior public notice, according to a state oversight office.

As a result, the Governor's Office of Economic Opportunity has placed restrictions on the public assistance agency's funding, said OEO Director Louise Cooper.

The action makes the second time in the past 40 days that the Waccamaw group has been placed on "reimbursement status," which means the financially strapped agency must front the cost for the community services it provides.

The Waccamaw Economic Opportunity Council serves more than 8,000 people a year in Horry, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties, providing weatherization, job training and utility bill payment assistance. The OEO controls about $7.5 million of the agency's money.

The council voted 8-3 on Tuesday to fire Executive Director Elizabeth Fryar, said board member Abdullah Mustafah.

He said Fryar's firing was a personnel matter, but he said a recent state compliance audit that found several problems with board's procedure played a role.

Fryar could not be reached for comment Friday.

The council's Head Start director, Wilhelmina Whitfield, has been named interim executive director.

The agency's chairman Zach Grate also could not be reached for comment Friday.

Cooper said the board violated its bylaws when it discussed Fryar's performance without listing it on the board's agenda that was published for public notice.

Abdullah said the discussion about Fryar's performance was a last-minute decision. He said several board members were talking about the issue before the meeting started and he thought the matter would better be discussed in executive session. Abdullah made the motion to amend the agenda to add a "personnel matter" to the agenda. He said the board did not violate its bylaws.

According to the state's Freedom of Information Act, simply stating a "personnel matter" is not enough information to give before going into executive session, said S.C. Press Association Director Bill Rogers. Abdullah should have announced that the board was holding an executive session to discuss the performance of the executive director.

Boards and other public bodies are allowed to add last-minute items to their agendas, Rogers said.

"Most boards can amend agenda with a two-thirds vote," Rogers said. "It's a gray area. I think there has not been any cases litigated on this. Some people think they need to give notice of agenda changes 24 hours ahead of time and others think you can do it with a two-thirds vote."

The agency had been placed on "reimbursement status" at the end of March, after the state's compliance audit found allegations that the agency's board members held improper elections and were using their position to help friends, and that the board was interfering in day-to-day operations.

The agency filed a corrective action plan with the OEO and the first "reimbursement status" was lifted April 23. Their corrective action plan included holding a new election for board officers and creating a tracking process for grievance complaints. The election is expected to take place May 25.

The second "reimbursement status" was placed after Tuesday's meeting, Cooper said.

Cooper said the OEO first began to look into the agency after receiving a complaint about possible board misconduct. The federal government has also asked for more oversight of community aid groups who receive Community Services Block Grant money, she said.

"Part of it is accountability, because this year you have so much more money because of federal stimulus money. We also had information, not from a staff member, that there were board irregularities," she said.

So far the OEO has audited two other agencies to check for adherence to grant requirements and board procedures.

"Our issues are not about issues with people despite some claims," Cooper said. "Our issues are policy and procedures. These things should have been fixed easily. ... Instead of making progress it seems like taking a step backwards."