Perry Holcomb at City Council

North Augusta resident Perry Holcomb speaks to City Council during the Jan. 6 meeting. 

North Augusta City Council gave its unanimous approval Monday night to appeal a court decision related to public information, continuing a fight over an amendment to an agenda item during a 2018 meeting. 

The city was sued by resident Perry Holcomb, who claimed the city violated the Freedom of Information Act when it amended a resolution in an agenda document during a May 2018 meeting. FOIA states that an agenda must be publicly posted at least 24 hours before a meeting and that no items can be added to the agenda after the posting without an additional 24 hours notice to the public. 

"If the item is one upon which final action can be taken at the meeting or if the item is one in which there has not been and will not be an opportunity for public comment with prior public notice given in accordance with this section, it only may be added to the agenda by a two-thirds vote of the members present and voting and upon a finding by the body that an emergency or an exigent circumstance exists if the item is not added to the agenda," the law states.

Judge Clifton Newman ruled in favor of Holcomb.

Council unanimously passed a resolution Monday night that authorizes the appeal of the order and funds the appeal from the Administrator Contingency Account “not to exceed $10,000. Additional funds would require Council approval,” the resolution says.

In a Dec. 30, 2019, filing, Judge Clifton Newman denied the city’s motion for an alteration of findings or a new trial in a lawsuit filed against the city and awarded Holcomb his attorney’s fees and costs, which total around $11,217.

That denial and award of attorney’s fees had been given verbally during a Dec. 5 hearing at the Aiken County courthouse.

During the Monday evening meeting, city attorney Kelly Zier gave a brief history of the case.

“The ultimate result was that the court has actually made the finding that the backup material and everything we provided was part of the agenda and could not be amended,” Zier said. “As a result of that, quite frankly, it takes out of Council’s hands the ability to do business in public. It means that whatever is presented on the agenda by way of ordinance of resolution, Council can either approve it as provided, decline it as provided, but cannot make changes at a meeting to move forward with the business of the city. We think that is wrong and that is a misinterpretation of the law.”

A motion was made to accept the resolution authorizing the appeal by Council member David McGhee and was seconded by Eric Presnell. The resolution passed unanimously.

“The Mayor and Council believe that it is necessary that this decision be reviewed and further considered by an Appellate Court which would result in the matter being considered by a group of Judges or Justices as opposed to the decision being made by one individual Judge,” the resolution says.

Zier said during the meeting that if the case goes to the Court of Appeals, it will be reviewed by three judges, and if it goes to the state Supreme Court, it will be reviewed by five justices.

“I’ve had a number of other entities that have contacted me about this decision, have encouraged us to appeal it, and I believe that if we are going to retain the right of this Council to do the business of this community in public, then we need to appeal this decision,” Zier said.

Holcomb spoke to Council members at the meeting ahead of the vote, following Zier.

“This city council is free to amend anything it wants by FOIA,” he said. “All you have to do is follow the laws therein. Counsellor Zier did not tell you the whole story. It is not a question of amending an agenda item that City Council is going to discuss, an item relating to the business of its citizens. It is the addition of an item to that agenda,” he said.

Holcomb also said during the meeting that if the city were to challenge Newman’s order and the Court of Appeals sided with the city, he would take the case to the state Supreme Court.

During the May 2018 meeting, Council unanimously passed an amendment to a resolution, adding funds earmarked for the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam to a list of projects to be included in the Capital Projects Sales Tax IV referendum. 

Follow Lindsey on Twitter at @LindseyNHodges. 

Lindsey is the North Augusta reporter at the Aiken Standard and North Augusta Star. She graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2017, and grew up in Hodges, SC.