MUSC board votes in public for president

Dr. David ColeThe Medical University of South Carolina’s board of trustees voted again to choose a president for the university. But this morning’s vote was taken in public and weeks after the Charleston Regional Business Journal reported that a public body cannot legally cast secret ballots in South Carolina.

By Ashley Barker
Published May 15, 2014

Trustees at the Medical University of South Carolina decided Thursday morning to make their vote for a new president public weeks after the Charleston Regional Business Journal reported that public bodies cannot legally cast secret ballots.

MUSC’s board chairman also proposed a possible change to the board’s bylaws to make all future votes public.

Dr. David Cole


The research institution’s board of trustees chose Dr. David Cole during a conference call on April 17 in which board members were privately called by internal auditors who tallied their votes.

After that first vote, a spokeswoman for MUSC said 10 votes were confidentially tallied for Cole and seven votes were tallied for Dr. Joanne Conroy, chief health care officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

On Thursday, Chairman Tom Stephenson asked the board to vote in public to avoid any confusion.

Fourteen members of the board publicly voted for Cole, while two members, Barbara Johnson-Williams and Robin M. Tallon, chose Conroy. Trustee Dr. Charles B. Thomas Jr. was absent from the meeting.

Hours later, the board took another vote because two board members thought they were bound to vote as they had during the secret ballot on April 17.

Stephenson explained that the vote was for ratification of the previous vote, so a second public vote was taken today. The board members in attendance then voted unanimously for Cole.

“I am confident that we followed the proper procedure last time,” Stephenson said. “But in an effort to address some of the concerns, I am asking the audit committee to take up a proposed bylaw change.”

During the next board meeting, scheduled for Aug. 8, MUSC’s board is expected to discuss a change of its bylaws to require public votes.

“Our bylaws currently require secret ballot. I don’t believe we had any choice; we had to do it that way absent an amendment to our bylaws,” Stephenson said. “But we will propose that the audit committee bring to this board perhaps an end to that, and, if we adopt the bylaw change, from there on all ballots will be public.”

S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender said voting in secret via a conference call and only taking tallies for each candidate is no different than voting in executive session, which is a violation of the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

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

MUSC attorney Annette Drachman said the board followed a 1995 S.C. opinion from then-Senior Assistant Attorney General Patricia Petway that says secret ballots may be used for voting purposes.

“If votes taken by secret ballot should be recorded by name, then such votes would become a matter of public record subject to disclosure, after the votes are submitted and tabulated,” the opinion said.

Drachman said the ballots are not available to the public because there were no ballots submitted.

“There’s a difference between what you record in terms of who voted for who versus the numbers of the tally,” Drachman said.

After the board decided to vote publically, Bender applauded the trustees for “coming to their senses.”

“Courage, belatedly, is nevertheless courage,” Bender said. “All they were doing by voting the way they did is undermining their new president, which made no sense.”

The board entered executive session after its first public vote to discuss Cole’s contract. The contract will be negotiated with Cole and is expected to be finalized at the August board meeting.

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Reach staff writer Ashley Barker at 843-849-3144 or @AshleyNBarker on Twitter.