Quarterly Update: Municipal Association of S.C.
Once elections are over, the hard work of governing begins. And when someone moves from the role of private citizen to candidate to elected official, there are different challenges to consider.
Cayce Mayor Elise Partin said she hit the ground running when she was first elected mayor in 2008 but quickly saw the difference between campaigning and governing. “Running for office is about getting your message out about how much homework you have done and how that information can help your city,” Partin said. “Governing is actually testing those theories and putting theory to action in effecting positive change. However, no matter how much homework someone does there are always differences in learning and implementation.”
Partin says she turned to the Municipal Association of South Carolina’s Municipal Elected Officials Institute as her first source of information following her election. The Municipal Association offers a variety of training opportunities that give newly local elected leaders the tools they need to make a seamless transition from candidate to elected official.
“People who run for elected office have a real passion and love for their communities,” says Miriam Hair, executive director of the Municipal Association. “But when campaigning turns to governing, it’s kind of like starting a new job. You know what you want to accomplish, but you aren’t necessarily familiar with all of the details, policies and regulations associated with the job. The same holds true for someone elected to municipal office. It’s important, for example, to learn quickly about state laws relating to municipal government, rules of procedure for conducting council meetings, and fundamentals of municipal finance.”
Newberry Mayor Foster Senn signed up for the Municipal Elected Officials Institute right after he was elected to council in 2006. Senn says all of the training works toward good, effective, open government.
“Through this training right after I was elected, I learned not only what to do, but also what not to do, missteps that I needed to avoid,” Senn said. “Government and proper government procedures are complicated – more complicated than I expected.”
For more than 20 years, the Municipal Association has partnered with Clemson University’s Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Public Service and Policy Research. Institute curriculum is delivered in two parts. The first is two day-long classes offered every February in Columbia, and the second is classes streamed to the ten councils of governments around the state three times a year.
Elected officials can complete the entire Institute curriculum in one year. Both the in-person classes and the streamed classes use local government experts, lawyers, business leaders, higher education instructors, and municipal government and Municipal Association staff to teach the sessions.
At the day-long sessions offered each February, topics include conducting public meetings, ethics and public accountability, planning and zoning, and business license administration.
The classes streamed to the councils of governments give local leaders a chance to get training three times a year without having to travel to Columbia. Plus the officials get the added advantage of networking and brainstorming time with peers in their region.
During these streamed sessions, elected officials learn from leaders in both the private and public sectors about the importance of partnerships in economic development. They hear from staff with the Municipal Association and the S.C. Press Association about complying with the Freedom of Information Act. They learn how the three forms of government affect how a city is run and the mechanics and legalities of the municipal budget.
Finding the time to attend training is often an issue for elected officials who usually have full-time jobs outside of their council responsibilities. “We know that municipal elected officials have many responsibilities and time commitments, so the time dedicated to training must be well spent” Hair said. “We have tried to design a flexible training program that meets both the goals of gaining technical knowledge and sharing best practices with their peers in other cities.”
To meet the goal of more flexibility in training, the Association just introduced a third opportunity – an online course that gives newly elected officials 24/7 access to the basics of getting up and running in their new role.
The online course is available through the Association’s website, allowing an official to participate on his own time. The course covers the basics of governing that include effective leadership, the fundamentals of city services, forms of government, basic budget requirements, effective meeting and agenda procedures, the Freedom of Information Act, and the state Ethics Act.
Another recent addition to the Municipal Association’s training opportunities is the Association of S.C. Mayors. Founded in 2011, the Association brings together South Carolina mayors to more fully engage in advocating for issues that affect cities and towns; to network, share ideas and best practices with other mayors; and to take part in educational activities.
“I continue to encourage newly elected officials to get involved with all of these training opportunities so they have a good base of knowledge about how government works,” said Senn, a board member of the Association of S.C. Mayors. “That knowledge will make us all better leaders in our communities.”