Wiedemann v. Town of Hilton Head Island

Decision Date08 April 1997
Docket NumberNo. 2661,2661
Citation326 S.C. 573,486 S.E.2d 263
PartiesHerbert P. WIEDEMANN, Appellant, v. TOWN OF HILTON HEAD ISLAND, South Carolina, Respondent. . Heard
CourtSouth Carolina Court of Appeals

Herbert P. Wiedemann, Hilton Head Island, pro se.

Curtis L. Coltrane, Hilton Head Island, for Respondent.

ANDERSON, Judge.

Herbert P. Wiedemann brought this action alleging a workshop of the Hilton Head Island Town Council held 45 miles outside the

boundaries of the municipality violated the open meeting provision of the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), S.C.Code Ann. §§ 30-4-10 to -110 (1991 & Supp.1996). The master granted summary judgment for the Town of Hilton Head. We affirm.

FACTS/PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The Town Council holds its regular meetings at the Town Hall of Hilton Head Island. On December 1, 2, and 3, 1995, the Mayor, the Town Council members, the Town Manager, and the Assistant Town Manager participated in a Town Council Workshop at the Dataw Island Club, Dataw Island, South Carolina. A major purpose of the meetings as stated in the workshop agenda was to facilitate the leadership and goal-setting capabilities of the council members. Dataw Island is a private, residential community located in Beaufort County approximately 45 miles from the municipal limits of the Town of Hilton Head. Access to the community is restricted and visitors must obtain passes from a guard at the security gate to enter.

On November 27, 1995, The Island Packet, a Hilton Head newspaper, advertised the Town Council would be holding the three-day retreat the following weekend. Wiedemann did not find a notice of the meeting on the Town Hall's official bulletin board or anywhere inside the Town Hall. Wiedemann contacted the Town's legal director, who placed Wiedemann's name on the guest list for admission to the retreat.

On December 1, 1995, Wiedemann obtained a pass from the Dataw Island security guard and proceeded to the Dataw Island Club. The Assistant Town Manager met him on the porch of the Club and escorted him to a room where the meeting was already in progress. There was no space for Wiedemann to sit at the conference table, and he had to sit on a chair that was placed in an aisle near the entrance. A reporter from The Island Packet sat with him. No other members of the public or press were present. Wiedemann states his attendance "was about as popular as ants at a picnic."

Wiedemann did not attend the meeting held on December 2, 1995. However, he did return for the meeting held on December 3, 1995. A different reporter was present, but no other members of the press or the public attended the meeting. According to the Assistant Town Manager, Charles O. Hoelle, Jr., the meeting room was large enough to accommodate all persons in attendance, and a larger room was available if more members of the public had attended the workshop.

Wiedemann brought this action for injunctive relief and a declaratory judgment on January 8, 1996, contending the Town of Hilton Head violated the FOIA by holding the council workshop at Dataw Island. He sought, inter alia, a declaratory judgment that the FOIA prohibits the Town Council "from meeting (i) at Dataw Island or at any other location so far from the geographic boundaries of [the Town of Hilton Head] as to make attendance by the relevant public impractical and (ii) at Dataw Island or any other gated community, or at any private club, including the Dataw Island Club, where public access is by sufferance rather than by right." 1 During discovery, Wiedemann admitted he knew of no person who claimed to have been prevented from attending the meetings at Dataw Island.

The Town of Hilton Head filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), SCRCP for failure to state facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action. Wiedemann moved for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56, SCRCP. The master denied Wiedemann's motion for summary judgment. The master converted the Town's motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment and then granted the motion. Wiedemann appeals.

ISSUE

Does an open, public meeting of a municipal council held outside the municipal limits

violate S.C.Code Ann. § 30-4-60 (1991) of the FOIA, which requires meetings of public bodies to be open to the public?

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate only when it is clear there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Kreutner v. David, 320 S.C. 283, 465 S.E.2d 88 (1995). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence and all inferences which can be reasonably drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Koester v. Carolina Rental Ctr., Inc., 313 S.C. 490, 443 S.E.2d 392 (1994).

Our Supreme Court further elucidates:

A motion for summary judgment shall be granted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." See S.C.R.C.P. 56(c) (1989). LaMotte v. Punch Line of Columbia, Inc., 296 S.C. 66, 370 S.E.2d 711 (1988). Crescent Company of Spartanburg, Inc. v. Insurance Company of North America, supra [266 S.C. 598, 225 S.E.2d 656 (1976)].

* * * *

A party seeking summary judgment has the burden of clearly establishing by the record properly before the Court the absence of a triable issue of fact. See Tom Jenkins Realty, Inc. v. Hilton, 278 S.C. 624, 300 S.E.2d 594 (1983). All inferences from facts in the record must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion for summary judgment. Eagle Construction Co. v. Richland Construction Company, Inc., 264 S.C. 71, 212 S.E.2d 580 (1975). A party who fails to show the absence of a genuine issue of material fact is not entitled to summary judgment even though his adversary does not come forward with opposing materials. Title Insurance Co. of Minnesota v. Christian, 267 S.C. 71, 226 S.E.2d 240 (1976).

Standard Fire Ins. Co. v. Marine Contracting & Towing Co., 301 S.C. 418, 421-22, 392 S.E.2d 460, 462 (1990).

LAW/ANALYSIS

Wiedemann argues the workshop held at Dataw Island, a private, gated community 45 miles from the Town's municipal limits, violated the open meeting requirement of the FOIA because the distance and the restricted access to the meeting site at Dataw Island created an unreasonable barrier to public attendance. We disagree.

The Town is a public body as defined by S.C.Code Ann. § 30-4-20(a) (1991). As a public body, the Town must comply with the FOIA's open meeting requirement in S.C.Code Ann. § 30-4-60 (1991), which provides, "Every meeting of all public bodies shall be open to the public unless closed pursuant to § 30-4-70 of this chapter." 2 For purposes of the FOIA, a "meeting" is defined as "the convening of a quorum of the constituent membership of a public body, whether corporal or by means of electronic equipment, to discuss or act upon a matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power." S.C.Code Ann. § 30-4-20(d) (1976). The Town did not contest the workshop was a meeting for purposes of the FOIA.

The meetings of municipal councils are governed by S.C.Code Ann. § 5-7-250 (1976), which states in pertinent part, "The council, after public notice[,] shall meet regularly at least once in every month at such times and places as the council may prescribe by rule." S.C.Code Ann. § 5-7-250(a) (1976).

Neither the statute governing municipal meetings, § 5-7-250, nor the statute requiring What restrictions may be invoked on the location of municipal meetings pursuant to the FOIA is a novel question in South Carolina, and our research reveals a paucity of cases on this topic from other jurisdictions. We have previously noted, however, that the legislatures of every state have enacted open meeting laws in some form or another, and because no two acts are the same, and because each case differs factually from the others, decisions from other states construing their statutes may be of limited assistance. See Herald Publ'g Co. v. Barnwell, 291 S.C. 4, 351 S.E.2d 878 (Ct.App.1986). Therefore, when deciding how to interpret South Carolina's open meeting statute, we look to the statement of legislative intent expressed in S.C.Code Ann. § 30-4-15 (1991):

meetings of public bodies to be open, § 30-4-60, specifies where meetings of a municipal council must be held. In contrast, we note the South Carolina legislature has mandated that school board meetings be held "at the school district office or at such other place within the district that the board deems convenient and suitable." S.C.Code Ann. § 59-1-340 (1990).

"The General Assembly finds that it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that citizens shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in the formulation of public policy. Toward this end, provisions of this chapter must be construed so as to make it possible for citizens, or their representatives, to learn and report fully the activities of their public officials at a minimum cost or delay to the persons seeking access to public documents or meetings." (Emphasis added.)

As stated above, our FOIA guarantees public access at a minimum cost or delay. This statutory right cannot be emasculated by a governmental entity by either distance, cost, or delay. The quiddity of South Carolina's FOIA is openness of meetings of public bodies undergirded by convenience and accessibility to the general public. The General Assembly has expressly disavowed clandestine meetings of governmental entities. This salutary and efficacious safeguard has...

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3 cases
  • Wiedemann v. Town of Hilton Head Island
    • United States
    • South Carolina Court of Appeals
    • January 29, 2001
    ...PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND This is the third time this case has been before an appellate court. See Wiedemann v. Town of Hilton Head Island, 326 S.C. 573, 486 S.E.2d 263 (Ct.App.1997) (Wiedemann I); Wiedemann v. Town of Hilton Head Island, 330 S.C. 532, 500 S.E.2d 783 (1998) (Wiedemann Herbert W......
  • Wiedemann v. Town of Hilton Head Island
    • United States
    • South Carolina Supreme Court
    • May 18, 1998
    ...Island, for respondent. WALLER, Justice: We granted certiorari to review the Court of Appeals' opinion in Wiedemann v. Town of Hilton Head, 326 S.C. 573, 486 S.E.2d 263 (Ct.App.1997). We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand to the FACTS In December, 1995, the Hilton Head Island Town ......
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    • South Carolina Supreme Court
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