Council plans emergency meeting on virus response

The Batesburg-Leesville Town Council plans to use modern technology to hold an emergency called meeting TONIGHT (March 19) at 6 p.m. to discuss the municipality’s ongoing response to the coronavirus crisis.

The emergency meeting comes after Mayor Lancer Shull declared a state of emergency and issued a proclamation early this morning that, according to a Town press release, “directs the Town Manager and appropriate emergency response personnel to take all necessary and appropriate measures to provide for the safety of the general public.”

Town Council is scheduled to meet — some members in person at Council chambers, others via electronic teleconferencing — to allow the Council to discuss and vote whether to ratify the Mayor’s emergency declaration.

The Town is asking the general public not to attend the meeting in-person, which is consistent with federal and state public health officials’ warnings not to gather in groups but to practice “social distancing.” However, the Town does plan to livestream the meeting on its social media platforms.

Under South Carolina open meetings law, under certain emergency circumstances, public bodies ARE allowed to hold emergency meetings without the usually-mandated requirement of a 24-hour public notice. They also are permitted to restrict public access to the meeting space in the interest of public safety and health as long as the public body provides electronic access to the proceedings.

Last week, Columbia City Council voted to restrict public access to its proceedings in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. At the time, Jay Bender, a Columbia attorney who represents the South Carolina Press Association and a leading expert on the Freedom of Information Act, wrote that “the inclusion of ‘electronic equipment’ in the definition of a meeting (under FOIA law) indicates that a public body may meet electronically. The only requirement would be that the public have a means of accessing the electronic meeting. The City of Columbia transmits live video of its meetings by cable television and internet streaming. Both measures would seem to me to satisfy the requirements of the FOIA.”

According to the Town release, “any members of Council who are high risk, uncomfortable with being in public, or are currently quarantined or ill, will have the ability to call in and take part in the meeting.”

Mayor Shull’s municipal-level proclamation follows South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster’s decision to issue a state of emergency statewide last Friday and his decisions earlier this week to close schools and restrict access to restaurants, bars and other public spaces.

“Myself as Mayor, our Town Council members, and Town administration are responsible for meeting the problems and dangers presented to the citizens and businesses of Batesburg-Leesville, and this declaration loosens many restrictions on our leadership to allow them to do what needs to be done during this time to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone in our Town,” Mayor Shull said in the release from Town Hall.

In declaring the local state of emergency, Mayor Shull called for the following provisions:

  • Allowing the Town Manager to create and implement changes to the Town’s Personnel Policy Manual to permit Town staff who are infected with COVID-19 or who have household members who are infected to remain home and be placed on administrative leave with pay until they are declared free of COVID-19, which will protect the health of other employees;
  • Directing the Town Manager to halt all non-essential travel by Town employees outside of the Town, to lessen the chance of being exposed to the virus;
  • Directing the Chief of Police “to do all things reasonably necessary to enforce those things requested by our federal and state leaders;”
  • Directing the Fire Chief “to do all things reasonably necessary to protect his members from needless exposure while ensuring emergency services will be provided to our citizens and visitors.”

Accordng to Mr. Luckadoo, “Many people don’t know exactly what an emergency declaration means or the importance behind it,” he said. “Our day to day operations are restricted to the budget Council approves and the policies and ordinances that they place into effect. When in a state of emergency declaration, a declaration opens the door for us to obtain what we need to protect ourselves and the public, and allows us the ability to adjust policies temporarily to ensure the welfare of staff and the public.”

Mr. Luckadoo said the state of emergency is a temporary measure, and “it is important for people to understand that once the state of emergency is over, everything goes back to normal. I commend the Mayor for doing this so our staff can do what we need to do during this time.”