COLUMBIA — A South Carolina regional water and sewer authority’s decision to deny a journalist’s request for records violates the state Freedom of Information Act, said the state’s top open-records expert.
The Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority had denied an FOIA request for the termination letter for Kenneth Griffin, who was dismissed from his general manager position last month.
The authority’s attorney, Erin Dean, of the firm Tupper, Grimsley and Dean, called the newspaper’s request “an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy.”
The request had also sought any arrest records Griffin might have had, but Dean wrote that the authority possessed no such records.
On Tuesday, Jay Bender, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, said the authority’s privacy exemption does not hold.
“The general manager’s termination letter is a public record under South Carolina law and must be disclosed upon request,” he said.
“The position taken by the Water and Sewer Authority is directly in conflict with a decision of the S.C. Court of Appeals, which ruled in a case involving sheriff’s deputies in York County.”
Bender said the exemption for “unreasonable invasion of personal privacy” from the mandatory disclosure requirements of the FOIA doesn’t apply to records relating to public employment, citing Burton v. York County Sheriff.
The authority is subject to the FOIA, is regulated by the state Department of Environmental Health, and follows federal Clean Drinking Water Act standards.
Asked simply for the reason Griffin was fired, water and sewer authority spokesman Matthew Brady replied by e-mail Tuesday: “This is a personnel matter, and we do not discuss details about personnel matters due to privacy concerns.”
On Jan. 25, the water and sewer authority issued a news release that said the organization’s board’s had released Griffin of his duties and that the deputy general manager, Ed Saxon, would serve as acting general manager.
Though not a flashy, headline-chasing organization, the nonprofit authority manages the region’s most vital resources and safeguards its quality of life. It’s in the southern tip of the state next to the Savannah River.
The authority provides 150,000 residents with drinking water and collects, treats and recycles about 7 million gallons of treated wastewater each day. It is embarking on $30 million in facility upgrades to reduce its discharge into the Savannah River, part of an effort that includes some two dozen other public and industrial polluters along the river.
In 2011, Griffin was hired with considerable fanfare, and for good reason, apparently. At the time, Bluffton Today reported that Griffin was to begin work at the end of August 2011, replacing longtime General Manager Dean Moss.
When he was dismissed last month, the Ivy League-educated Griffin had been on the job less than two years and earned about $140,000. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.
Now that he’s gone, few can say what transpired.
Leaders within the Jasper County administration said they didn’t know what led to Griffin’s departure, nor do local lawmakers. State House Representatives Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, and Bill Bowers, D-Hampton, said this month they knew nothing about the circumstances.
What is known is that Griffin is not angling for a newly created position in the region’s water management community. His name is not among the 16 job applicants for the general manager position for the newly formed Lowcountry Regional Water System, according to Fred Hanna, a consultant assisting the town of Hampton with the hiring process.
That’s despite an impressive work history.
Griffin had served as assistant county administrator of utilities and infrastructure for Hillsborough County, Fla., which includes metropolitan Tampa, before joining the authority.
Before that, he spent 13 years as the general manager of the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District in Mississippi.
Griffin had earned a bachelor’s degree in science from the University of California Irvine, a master’s degree in water chemistry and biology from Cornell University, a master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Southern California and a doctorate in leadership and administration from the University of Mississippi.
He also completed the executive program in strategic public sector negotiation from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, according to Bluffton Today’s 2011 coverage, which was based on information provided by the authority.