MUSC president vote can’t be done in secret, attorney says

By Ashley Barker
Published April 17, 2014

If the Medical University of South Carolina’s board of trustees goes through with a recent bylaw change, it will violate the state’s open meeting laws and could jeopardize the hiring of a new president, according to S.C. Press Association Attorney Jay Bender.

The research institution’s board revised its bylaws April 10 to allow voting for a new president by “secret ballot in person, a confidential conference call or other electronic confidential means,” according to MUSC spokeswoman Heather Woolwine.

“There can be no secret votes,” Bender said. “It’s an effort to institutionalize lawless behavior.”

The board plans to meet via a conference call at 4 p.m., today to discuss the presidential search.

Woolwine said Chairman Tom Stephenson and the board members will discuss the presidential search when the board votes to enter executive session behind closed doors. They will go back into open session if they decide to take a vote.

In that case, all board members would hang up and internal auditors Susan Barnhart and Jody O’Donnell will call each board member and tally their votes. Members will then get back on the conference call and the auditors will tell Stephenson and the public who will become the next president, according to Woolwine.

“I don’t think that’s a public vote. It sounds like the same as voting in executive session,” Bender said.

The board has narrowed its search to three finalists — Dr. David J. Cole, chairman of the Department of Surgery at MUSC; Dr. Joanne M. Conroy, chief health care officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges; and Dr. Ora H. Pescovitz, executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Michigan.

“It’s obvious to me that these fellas are embarrassed to make a public decision,” Bender said. “If you lack the courage to do the job in public, don’t take the office.”

If the board violates S.C.’s Freedom of Information Act, a lawsuit could be filed that could conceivably set aside the selection, according to Bender. He said the only way to reconcile the situation after the vote would be to include who each member of the board voted for in the minutes, which are made public.

“Why would they want a new president to start under a cloud of illegality? It’s not even a close call,” Bender said. “These people have advanced degrees, right? Apparently reading (the law) is not part of it.”

Woolwine said MUSC attorney Annette Drachman is going to get in touch again with the attorneys who initially reviewed the process.

“We maintain that our process is perfectly legal. We had it validated through outside counsel,” Woolwine said.

Reach Ashley Barker at 843-849-3144 or @AshleyNBarker.

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