Quality Towing Inc. v. City of Myrtle Beach was a case before the South Carolina Supreme Court in 2001 concerning the applicability of open records laws to advisory committees.
This case established that committees designed to advise public bodies on any subject relating to a public function are in fact performing a public function and are thus subject to the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act.
- On June 13, 1995, the City Council of Myrtle Beach enacted legislation which required the city manager to contract with a towing service in Myrtle Beach to provide towing services for public lots.
- Prior to this ordinance, the city had rotated between a list a qualified local wrecker services for their towing needs. Quality Towing was one of those services.
- The city manager formed a committee of government employees, but not council members, to evaluate and make recommendations on the bids submitted by the local towing companies. The committee was to evaluate the proposals on 6 criteria, including "price, equipment, facilities, reputation, ability to perform, and insurance."
- 4 proposals were submitted and the committee, as required by law, decided to visit the facilities of only one of the towing companies, deeming the other bids non-responsive.
- The city manager overruled the committee's decision that Quality's bid was non-responsive and ordered them to inspect their facility as well. They were scheduled to review their facilities on December 3.
- On October 12, prior to the review of Quality, the committee submitted its nomination for the other auto wrecker that they had already toured. The city manager decided to approve the action and on January 9 the city council approved the contract.
- Quality filed suit seeking to have the contract voided alleging that it violated Quality's property and equal protection rights, created an unlawful trust and that the committee had acted in violation of the Freedom of Information Act.
- On June 19, 1997 and August27, 1997 the court ruled in favor of the city on all counts except for the FOIA violation and questions relating to the validity of the bidding process.
- On May 17, 1999 the special referee appointed to decide the FOIA issue ruled in favor of the city.
- The decision of the special referee was appealed.
Ruling of the court
The trial court, through the special referee, ruled in favor of the city, declaring that the committee was not a public body subject to FOIA and that no improprieties occurred during the bidding process.
The Supreme Court overturned the special referee's decision with regard to the applicability of the FOIA law. THe court determined that because the committee was set up with the sole purpose of advising the city manager and consequentially the city council, it was in fact an "advisory committee" of a public body and therefor subject to the law. The court directly stated, "We find a committee formed to give advice to a public body or official is performing a governmental function" and is thus subject to the law. Further, you court held that the committee's function directly related to the expenditure of public funds which resulted in high degree of public interest in the goings on of the committee. The court went on to find a violation of the open meetings law, namely, failing to announce a specific agenda item for executive session but rejected Quality's contention that the committee illegally arrived at a decision in executive session. The court also found that the city failed to develop and pass an adequate statute declaring that the towing business would become a franchise of the city, and thus the contract is void until that ordinance passes. Based on these decisions, the court reverse the decision of the trial court, ruling in favor of Quality and voiding the contract. The court then remanded the decision of attorney fees and awards to trial court to determine if Quality was entitled.