WINNSBORO — As Fairfield County Administrator Malik Whitaker worries about the silent suppression of a much-anticipated — and possibly explosive — employee survey, council’s closed-door discussion of an audit of County policies, with respect to employees, appear to have gone awry from South Carolina’s open meeting laws.
Whitaker announced at Monday night’s board meeting that he was not ready to release the results of the investigation and policy audit. He cited potential lawsuits as justification for not releasing the documents.
“The survey will be released in the near future as part of a specific policy and procedural recommendation identified as part of the HR (Human Resources Department) audit,” Whitaker said. “At this time, it would be inappropriate to release the investigation without addressing the items identified in the audit.”
Whitaker read a lengthy prepared statement that gave very few details other than saying he would not release the documents and stating in vague language that the potential for litigation required legal review.
“I am concerned about potential claims against the county that may arise as a result of certain conflicting staff actions,” he said, without being specific.
Whitaker’s statement included criticism from Councilman Clarence Gilbert, who had insisted that the investigation identify and resolve ongoing employee morale issues.
“While Mr. Gilbert indicated that a survey of county employees should be conducted, he did not provide a clear purpose for the survey,” Whitaker said.
“What does he mean by the fact that I didn’t provide a clear objective for the investigation? The goal was exactly what he said — ‘to identify and resolve persistent employee morale issues,’” Gilbert said when asked about Whitaker’s criticisms.
“What is the purpose of any survey if not to find out what the interviewees think or want, what upsets them? And Mr. Whitaker won’t divulge this information? Throwing in words like “litigation” in reference to employee survey results is scary for employees. Are we going to make them feel intimidated or punished for taking a survey? It’s scary, not just for the employees but for all of Fairfield County,” Gilbert said.
“There is no justification for delaying the publication of the results of the investigation.
—Jay Bender | Lawyer, SC Press Association
“And if Mr. Bell isn’t very concerned about the secrecy posted here by our administrator, an employee supervised by the board, we have to wonder if he (Bell) is cooperating with this employee survey ruse,” he said. Gilbert said.
“This survey was conducted by Talent Keepers, an impartial and professional company. Simply because the survey responses apparently lead to disastrous consequences for Mr. Whitaker or anyone else; it is still public information and should be made available to the public now, not after the election,” Gilbert said.
Former Fairfield County Deputy Administrator Davis Anderson, who headed the county’s human resources department for 20 years, scoffed at the idea that county policies and procedures — regardless of condition — should prohibit the publication of the results of the employee satisfaction survey.
“Mr. Whitaker seems to be trying to find a way to hide the results of the investigation that are apparently going to make someone look bad,” Anderson said. “But blaming county policies is overkill.
“Several employees have contacted me about their questionnaires. How employees react is not about which policies need to be updated. Their responses are about how they feel about their work environment, their pay, how they’re treated,” Anderson said.
“It is Mr. Whitaker’s responsibility to make the results of the investigation public and then to address the ills uncovered by the investigation,” Anderson said. “If the policies are outdated, it is our labor lawyers, Gignilliat, Savitz and Bettis who should update them. An outdated policy is no reason to hide employee survey results, no matter how detrimental it might be to the administration.
Whitaker also hinted that any morale issues in the investigation stemmed from decisions made before he arrived last year.
“We wanted to determine whether the investigation had raised any concerns about human resources processes and procedures over the past few years,” he said.
Whitaker’s secret questioned
Ridgeway resident Randy Bright, speaking in public comments, said he didn’t think the proximity of the executive session talks to the upcoming election was a coincidence.
“Who knows what else is in the investigation because it hasn’t been released,” Bright said.
“We apparently have a serious enough issue among our employees that we need to hold an executive session to discuss it,” Bright continued.
Jay Bender, media lawyer for the SC Press Association, of which The Voice is a member, said public bodies are not legally allowed to withhold entire reports if only parts of them may contain exempt material. He said there was no justification for delaying the release of the survey results.
“The law states that if a document or public record contains information that can be withheld, it is mandatory to separate what can be withheld from what must be disclosed,” he said. “The fact that it was not presented to the council does not make it any less of a public record.”
Bender also questioned the timing of Whitaker’s decision to keep the results of the investigation secret.
“I assume there is an elected official or an appointed official who fears being identified as the cause of the morale problems in the county and who is working to suppress the report,” Bender said. “I think the timing is right for my idea that someone is interested in removing unflattering or unfavorable information.”
Illegal executive session
One of the executive session items on Monday evening’s agenda was the “discussion of one or more employees following a personnel audit in the county.”
The council has only two employees it is allowed to discuss – the administrator and the council clerk and should not discuss the employment status of other employees in executive session. It turns out that the board members never discussed specific employees.
Sources close to the private meeting said the discussion was more of a general briefing on shortcomings in the county’s HR procedures.
The discussion focused on policies and no discussion on specific employees took place, despite what the printed agenda indicated.
Bender said the board acted improperly. Elected officials are not allowed to deviate from the stated reasons for entering executive session, he said.
“It’s a shame that your elected officials are caught in the act of lying,” Bender said. “Someone is protected trying to hide this stuff, and now they’re hiding it behind a lie.”
Bender said the executive session discussion could be challenged in court.
“The law would allow for legal action to prohibit them from lying in the future,” he said.