State renews Waccamaw EOC probe

The state is opening a new investigation at the Waccamaw Economic Opportunity Council to see if board chairman Zacharius Grate is once again improperly interfering in the agency's day-to-day business.

Grate was among the board members who were found to be doing so in a March audit of the agency, and he and others told the state they would stop.

Louise Cooper, director of the state Office of Economic Opportunity, said Wednesday she launched a new investigation after reading a news report of Tuesday night's EOC board meeting and hearing that Grate had issued orders that no information would be given to the public from the agency until he has the chance to shape it.

Cooper further was disturbed that board members voted late Tuesday night to pay some lawyers' fees immediately without knowing how much money they were spending.

"It's something we need to investigate," she said of the vote, "because it calls into question the spending of federal funds."

Grate did not respond to phone calls and e-mails seeking comment Wednesday.

The EOC provides assistance to thousands of low-income residents of Horry, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties from millions of dollars in federal grants that it distributes each year. The agency's overall budget is about $15 million annually, with about $6 million of that spent on Head Start programs in the three counties and the rest going to help individuals with things such as weatherization of their homes and rent and mortgage assistance.

Board members resisted complying with the findings of the March audit, and at that time fired the longtime EOC lawyer and hired two others. At one point, state legislators asked board members to resign to help resolve issues at the agency. All but five, including Grate, did. The state, however, said the election of two of those members to the board was done improperly and only recognized three.

The board Tuesday night also approved having an election for the only still-unfilled board seat to be in Loris and left it up to staff to decide the date, time and place. At least 30 days' notice must be given.

Tuesday's board meeting consisted primarily of a three-hour closed session and then the rapid-fire, no-discussion approval of nine items, including payment of the lawyers' fees.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said the process likely is evidence that many things were discussed in the closed session that are not allowed under the state's open meetings law.

"It seems pretty obvious they discussed those matters in closed session," he said after hearing a list of the items that quickly got votes after the session ended at about 11 p.m. He said only one, approval of job grade changes for two employees, would have been allowed by the open meetings law.

New board member Susan Sejda said during a cigarette break she took from the closed session that the board had been discussing, among other things, $60,000 in federal money the agency must spend by today and deciding if it should be applied to overtime pay that agency staff have earned.

The law does not allow publicly financed boards to discuss fiscal matters in closed sessions, Rogers said.

Rogers said state law is vague on whether publicly-financed boards need to keep minutes of closed sessions. Other states, including North Carolina, strictly require that closed session minutes be recorded and made available to the public once the reason for the closed session is no longer valid.

An instance of the latter would be the settlement of a lawsuit. Closed door negotiations and discussions about the settlement could be kept secret only until the settlement was signed by all involved.

The announced reasons for the EOC's lengthy closed session Tuesday night was for a legal issue, a personnel issue and a contractual issue. It was originally scheduled to happen at the end of the meeting, but was moved to the beginning in an agenda adjustment made shortly after the meeting convened. Some agency directors were called into the session for various times before emerging.

Directors' reports on the agenda, which in previous meetings have taken a significant part of the open meeting, were quickly dispensed Tuesday night as director after director said she had no report to give.

After the meeting, Grate gestured to a staff member and said that the amount of payment to lawyers would be available from her Wednesday. But that was not the case.

"I've already been instructed I can't answer any questions without it going through the [Freedom of Information Act] request," Sharon Boyd, the agency's human resources director, said Wednesday.

She said the rule applied to all requests for public information from the agency.

Grate said Tuesday night he didn't know the exact amount and bristled at questions about it after the closed session. He was unmoved to provide answers by a statement that the agency is spending taxpayer- money and that taxpayers have a legal right to know how that money is spent.

Among the quick-fire approvals board members gave items after the closed door session Tuesday night was of a policy for FOIA requests, the process for which is clearly detailed in state law.

Waccamaw EOC's new policy requires that all requests be immediately forwarded to Grate and the agency's attorney who will decide how it will be handled, then to a staff member who will gather the information. That will then be sent back to Grate and the attorney.

The policy states that people who expect to have their FOIA requests fulfilled also can expect to be billed 25 cents per page of material that is produced and for the time of the person instructed to gather it.

Rogers said the agency would also incur expenses with each request because the agency cannot charge an attorney's fee to twice review the requests to the person making the inquiry.

He said that the extended closed door session Tuesday and the new FOIA policy should raise red flags to the public.

"This is a true tribute to bureaucratic waste and it violates the spirit of the law,' he said. "When you see this much effort to keep the public from getting information, there must be a reason."

Related stories from Myrtle Beach Sun News