To the public, a future plan for beach parking on Isle of Palms may as well be buried in the sand.
Isle of Palms City Council members this month spent 246 minutes — or four hours and six minutes — behind closed doors receiving legal advice about how to proceed in negotiations with the South Carolina Department of Transportation, according to a review of Isle of Palms City Council meetings.
In the process, Isle of Palms City Council also might have violated the state’s open meetings law, which is meant to ensure transparency in government.
Area residents, hopeful beach-goers and at least one council member say the lack of transparency is eroding public trust in how Isle of Palms is handling beach parking, as tourism season quickly approaches.
The hours council members spent in executive session this month come after the state Department of Transportation revoked its previous approval of the barrier island’s 2015 parking plan.
The plan had largely banned nonresidents from using parking spaces on most streets near coveted beach access points. A Feb. 1 letter from Transportation Secretary Christy Hall sent to the mayor and council said the barrier island’s parking rules are potentially unconstitutional.
Isle of Palms, which is located across the Intracoastal Waterway from Mount Pleasant, has become the nexus of South Carolina’s beach parking drama that has sparked debates over who deserves access to state’s public sands.
The city is facing a lawsuit over its 2020 decision to temporarily block nonresidents from using more than 750 parking spots near the beach, leaving just 10 free spaces for visitors. A state bill about beach parking was drafted by state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, with the barrier island’s actions in mind.
Behind closed doors
After four City Council meetings this month, local leaders have yet to openly discuss what parking options might look like, as temperatures in the Charleston area begin to tick back up and the busy summer season approaches.
Council had an opportunity to talk about the matter in detail on Tuesday, with beach parking scheduled as a public discussion item on its agenda.
Instead, council members deviated from their agenda, added previously-public items to their executive agenda and unanimously voted to go into executive session, which is held out of the public’s view.
One of those discussion items was the city’s managed beach parking plan.
South Carolina Press Association attorney Taylor Smith said it was inappropriate for Isle of Palms City Council to indicate an agenda item was going to be discussed in public and then not do so.
By law, the council should have taken a specific vote on changing the beach parking discussion item on its agenda, Smith said.
“That did not happen here,” Smith said. “The public was unable to learn what they could anticipate their public body going behind closed doors to discuss.”
Instead, the public was forced to wait.
Multiple attempts to reach Isle of Palms Mayor Jimmy Carroll for comment were unsuccessful.
More than one-third of Tuesday’s City Council meeting, which lasted just shy of four hours, was spent in executive session. One council member could not hide his frustration as he prepared to enter the closed-door portion at 8:25 p.m. The meeting, held virtually, had started at 6 p.m.
“This is freakin’ ridiculous,” Councilman Ryan Buckhannon said moments before his video screen switched to black and an image of the city seal appeared on the meeting’s live-stream.
At 9:05 p.m., some 87 viewers were still watching the meeting on the city’s YouTube page. Andrea Schroder, 54, was one of them.
She has been following the issue of beach parking closely because the beach is more than a place to visit for her family.
“It grounds us. We have that to look forward to each week. People can run and scream as loud as they want to scream, throw sand, run up and down the beach and just let go,” she said.
Schroder and her husband are foster parents, and she said their family goes to the beach “weekly, if not several times a week.”
From her home in Mount Pleasant, Schroder kept the meeting’s live video playing on her cellphone as she put her kids to bed and did some laundry. She had hoped council would only be in executive session for 10 or 15 minutes.
It took 90 minutes.
“My husband and I, we were just watching and waiting — hoping they would give us something, and then we could at least know what the next steps need to be. But when they came back, it was so scripted,” Schroder said.
‘It erodes the public trust’
A motion made almost immediately after the council’s executive session — without any public discussion among council members — suggests city leaders are not throwing out their existing parking plan, despite state transportation officials’ criticism.
Councilman Randy Bell appeared to be reading the motion as he said it. “While affirming the current 2015 parking plan and subsequent amendments, we will continue to work with S.C. DOT to optimize available beach parking,” he said.
The motion received a quick second from Councilman Jimmy Ward and the mayor, who held up two fingers to signal he, too, had seconded the motion. Council then voted unanimously to adopt it without the agenda’s promised discussion.
When Schroder heard it, she had to go back and play it multiple times in the video, she said. She called it “a word salad.”
Reached by phone Wednesday to clarify what the motion meant, Bell said it was intended to uphold the city’s position that its 2015 parking plan remains “the valid ordinance” for the city.
“We affirmed the plan by a 9-0 vote that it is our plan of record. Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t add parking to it, and we are having constructive conversations with S.C. DOT about that,” Bell said.
Yet when Hall, the state transportation director, addressed City Council members Feb. 10 in a special meeting, she said the transportation department had made a mistake in approving the beach parking plan six years ago. She also said she did not believe the 2015 parking plan would be approved today.
When pressed about the confusion created by the city’s motion to keep supporting its 2015 parking plan and the rejection from transportation officials, Bell did not deny it.
“It can be very cryptic,” Bell said.
It has led to confusion and frustration this week among Charleston-area residents who watched Tuesday’s meeting thinking they would get a taste of what’s being discussed about beach parking.
“They say they’re going to work with S.C. DOT, but we haven’t heard any examples about how they want to work with them. They’re not giving us anything,” said Ellen Williams, a 47-year-old who lives in Mount Pleasant.
She watched the Isle of Palms City Council meetings this month and has grown tired of waiting for updates that never seem to come.
“It erodes the public trust in what they’re doing. I think the public deserves better communication, even if they can’t share legal counsel with the public,” Williams said.
Buckhannon, the councilman whose own frustrations were caught on a hot mic during Tuesday’s meeting, said he received multiple calls the day after the meeting. Many residents, he said, were upset.
“People want to be updated, to have a feeling of transparency and to know what’s going on. They want to know this is where the city stands, this is what we’ve done and this is what we’re doing,” Buckhannon said. “With any corporation or in any type of job, that’s the best way to operate, and I think that was taken away from the residents Tuesday night.”
He also said it wasn’t the first time a meeting took a turn from its stated agenda.
During the Feb. 10 special meeting, Buckhannon said he was under the impression that council would get to ask Hall some questions after her presentation.
“It was all the sudden moved into executive session to discuss that. I don’t get it,” Buckhannon said. “We have the secretary of transportation in front of us, which doesn’t happen very often. Why are we not afforded the opportunity to ask questions?”
In a statement provided to The State newspaper Thursday evening, Isle of Palms city administrator Desirée Fragoso said the city is working with Hall and the S.C. DOT team on “a unified strategy to optimize parking and traffic for beach visitors and residents.”
She added, “We expect to share a joint plan within the next month.”