Municipal officials: Chapin mayor's action to suspend volunteer not legal

Published: Jun. 5, 2015 at 6:50 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 15, 2015 at 7:03 PM EDT
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CHAPIN, SC (WIS) - Chapin mayor's recent action to suspend a town resident from any involvement in volunteer committee and planning roles was not legal, according to state municipal officials.

Chapin Mayor Skip Wilson suspended Wendie Orr-Svoboda on May 29 as a member of the town's Planning Commission, as well as any other town committee positions. Svoboda was notified by email and letter about the suspension, where Wilson said, "The decision is based on your most recent behavior by secretly recording the conversations of private citizens without their knowledge or approval in a non-public meeting at Town Hall."

Svoboda was a member of the Ad Hoc committee's review team, where she said at a recent meeting, she had a recorder with her to record the meeting for her notes. However, she said when Chapin's Zoning Administrator Chris Clauson asked her if she had a recorder, she said she did and explained to him it was for her notes. Svoboda told WIS that she felt Clauson was uncomfortable with the recorder, so she put it away and told him she did so.

"He didn't say I couldn't do it and didn't say anything else about it," Svoboda said. "He seemed uncomfortable with it, so I put it away. I told Chris later that I put it away. He nodded and didn't say anything. … He knew clearly I put it away."

WIS reached out to Clauson for comment, but per town policy, he referred us to Communications Director Karen Owens. Owens said Clauson did notify the mayor about Svoboda having a recorder in the meeting.

Svoboda said she did not record that meeting and took notes by hand. In addition, she also states this was not a private meeting and anyone could have attended.

However, Wilson tells WIS that this meeting was not public and that other attendees in the meeting saw and heard Svoboda admit she was recording the meeting.

"Then how is it secret?" Svoboda asked during an interview with WIS after discussing Wilson's statement that others said she was recording the meeting.

Even so, South Carolina law states as long as one party knows a conversation is being recorded, it is legal to record the conversation whether it is public or private.

Aside from Svoboda having the recorder in the room at the time of the committee meeting, she said Wilson does not have any proof that there is an alleged recording. Wilson said he is unaware if she used any of the supposed recordings. But that didn't stop his decision to suspend her from any involvement in the Planning Commission and other committees.

However, Municipal Association of South Carolina staffer Scott Slatton said Wilson had no authority to suspend Svoboda from a volunteer position when it is the entire council's responsibility to appoint people to that Commission, per state law.

"He does not have the authority to remove appointed officials who are required to be appointed by the council," Slatton said. "The mayor is not allowed by law or state law to unilaterally suspend committee or commission members."

But Wilson says he can under the strong mayor state law, which states he is responsible for the administration of all city affairs. Slatton said that's true if Svoboda was a paid employee for Chapin, but she is holding a volunteer position.

Svoboda was named to the Planning Commission on Jan. 15, 2014, by a 3-2 vote by Town Council. Wilson opposed her appointment, along with Councilman Gregg White. Wilson questioned Svoboda's qualifications to be on the Commission and whether she was the best qualified candidate, according to Council meeting minutes.

"I'm not someone who isn't capable of taking this on," Svoboda said. "He has gone after me on everything that he didn't like. He has wanted to get rid of me because I didn't agree with him."

The Planning Commission unanimously named her vice chairman last month. Svoboda plans to attend the next Planning Commission meeting as a member of the Commission. Slatton explained that if Svoboda does attend the Commission meeting, the Commission chairman is the only one that has the authority to have her removed as the presiding officer of that meeting.

But that's not what the mayor wants.

"That is a public meeting, and she is welcome to attend the Planning Commission meeting as a citizen of the Town of Chapin," Wilson said, adding he only suspended her and did not remove her.

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