Thursday, September 3, 2015

Letting the sunshine in

By Tiger Wells, Government Affairs Liaison
All states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have laws that are popularly referred to as “Sunshine Laws,” a name that invokes the image of curtains being thrown open allowing light to enter and illuminate an otherwise dark room.

In South Carolina, the state’s sunshine law, the SC Freedom of Information Act, requires that every public body, from departments of the state to municipal governing bodies and their various committees open their meetings and records to the public.

The Municipal Association understands that there is truth in the old adage “In the absence of information, people will assume the worst.” The lost trust that can result from a lack of transparency can lead to strained relationships between city leaders and their constituents, which can in turn make governing efficiently and effectively very difficult.

With this in mind, the Association provides multiple FOIA-related training classes and articles for municipal elected officials and staff.

The Association also frequently directs its members to the SC Press Association’s great handbook explaining the Act in easy-to-understand language.

Recent actions by the General Assembly and the SC Supreme Court have resulted in changes to the way public bodies provide meeting notice, the procedure followed when adding items to meeting agendas and the procedure followed when entering executive session.

S11, signed into law in June, outlines how a public body can add items to its meeting agenda after the meeting has been called to order. It’s a somewhat complicated process, so the Association worked with the SC Press Association to create a flowchart that outlines very specifically the process a council must use. The new law also requires cities to post meeting notices and agendas on their websites, if they have one.

A recent Supreme Court ruling addresses the specific purpose requirement that a public body must satisfy when entering executive session.

Both of these actions mean councils may need to adjust their processes for posting meeting agendas and entering executive session. 

Part of the fall Regional Advocacy Meetings is focused on training about these actions. To learn more, read the Uptown articles about these two actions in the August/September issue, and look for an updated version of the Municipal Elected Officials Institute of Government FOIA class coming this fall.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Content-Based Sign Codes Unconstitutional

By Tiger Wells, Municipal Association's Government Affairs Liaison

A recent case decided by the U.S  Supreme Court speaks to First Amendment violations related to temporary signage. In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the Court held unanimously that Gilbert, Arizona’s sign code, which treated various categories of temporary signs differently based on the information they convey, violates the First Amendment.

According to the Court, Gilbert’s sign code treated temporary directional signs, such as those used by Pastor Reed to direct parishioners to his church, less favorably (in terms of size, location, duration, etc.) than political signs and ideological signs.

Content-based laws are only constitutional if they pass strict scrutiny—that is, if they are narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest.

Despite arguments that Gilbert’s sign categories are based on function, the Court concluded they are based on content.
Gilbert’s sign code failed strict scrutiny because its purposes —preserving aesthetic and traffic safety—were “hopelessly underinclusive,” according to the Court. Temporary directional signs are “no greater an eyesore” and pose no greater threat to public safety than ideological or political signs.

During a recent webinar discussion of Reed v. Town of Gilbert, hosted by the National League of Cities, there appeared to be a prevailing expectation that the Court’s decision would require many local governments to make modifications to existing sign laws. Nevertheless, there also appeared to be consensus among the speakers that the case should not be interpreted to overrule prior sign-related Court precedent.

While the speakers encouraged municipalities to examine their existing sign laws in light of Reed, they also cautioned against taking extreme intermediate steps such as instituting an across-the-board moratorium on temporary signs. Such a move could temporarily solve one problem only to expose the municipality to other First Amendment claims.

Friday, August 21, 2015

First week of Regional Advocacy Meetings a Success

The Municipal Association advocacy staff hit the road this week to start the annual series of Regional Advocacy Meetings. It's our favorite time of year that gives us the chance to get out of Columbia and hear about issues important to cities and towns.
Rock Hill
Close to 100 local officials and staff from 34 cities and towns gathered in Columbia and Rock Hill to learn about laws that passed in the 2015 session and discuss priorities for the 2016 session.
It's always interesting when we get on the road to see how lots of issues continue to come up over the years. Specifics may change but issues like roads, dilapidated buildings, financing and annexation have been around for decades. 

Check out this old photo from the Association's recently published history book to get a glimpse of priorities in the 1970s.

One focus of the meetings is training about new provisions in the Freedom of Information Act. S11 and a SC Supreme Court ruling changes requirements for posting meeting notices and entering executive session. 

The Association worked closely with the SC Press Association to develop specific guidance on how councils should go about making changes to a meeting agenda after it's been posted. Get the easy-to-follow flow chart to use when making changes to an agenda.

Regional Advocacy Meetings resume the week of August 31 with visits to Conway and Hartsville. It's not too late to sign up!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

On the road again

By Casey Fields, Manager for Municipal Advocacy

Cue Willie Nelson’s 1980 hit “On the road again.” I know you know it. The Municipal Association legislative team is very familiar with this catchy tune. We sing it every year about this time. Why? Because it’s time for Regional Advocacy Meetings.

We hit the open road to visit a hometown near you, share a meal, some fellowship and talk legislative politics. I love hearing about kids, grandkids, summer trips, and new ideas to make your cities and towns better places to live and work.

The Regional Advocacy Meetings start next Wednesday, August 19, in Columbia. If you haven’t already registered, consider coming to one of the ten meetings that’s closest or most convenient to you. 

I know everyone is busy and has second and third jobs in addition to be an elected official. But there is real value in gathering together, discussing local issues, learning about new laws in place and forming strategy for the upcoming legislative session.

This year we will go over new laws from the 2015 session that cities and towns have to follow. Topics like requiring agendas for meetings, Uber regulations and indigent defense on are deck. We will also take some time to discuss local issues that are on your mind and talk politics about General Assembly elections and the overall mood at the State House.

Over lunch, we will tackle the big issues coming up in the 2016 session. Business licensing, local accommodations taxes and dilapidated buildings are just three issues that cities and towns are facing in the second year of this two-year session. 

I promise, these meetings are not lectures or boring presentations. They are a fast-paced discussion of local issues important to you, your colleagues and us - who represent you at the State House.

Doesn’t this sound like something you don’t want to miss? Of course it does. Register for a Regional Advocacy Meeting and let me buy you lunch. I will make Scott, Melissa and Tiger sing Willie Nelson. See you on the road!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Throwback Thursday - The first Annual Meeting and the early years

If you’re on Facebook, you’ll be familiar with fun old photos people post on Throwback Thursdays. So this week, we’ll throwback a photo from the early days of the Association.

At the recent Annual Meeting, the Association rolled out its 85th anniversary history book. With lots of photos, timelines and stories, the book chronicles how the Association grew from an organization primarily focused on advocacy to a multi-faceted association providing a variety of programs and services to the state’s local elected officials and city staff. Click here to watch a short video that describes the book.

One of the many comments the Association received about the book is how its photos illustrate the gradual evolution of local elected officials from a white male dominated group to a more diverse cross-section that included an increasing number of minorities and women as time progressed. Look closely at this photo, and you’ll see one woman in the top right corner.

This Throwback Thursday photo is one of the earliest in the Association’s archives. This meeting in 1940 at Columbia’s iconic Jefferson Hotel was the Association’s first after hiring its first executive director, James N. Caldwell, in 1940. While mayors had been meeting informally since 1930 as the Municipal Association, the hiring of Caldwell marked the beginning of the formal organization we know today.

Before Caldwell’s hiring, Columbia’s city attorney, R.W. Wade, had been serving as secretary-treasurer of the loosely organized Association. He monitored legislation, prepared testimony and planned annual meetings. He was paid about $50 per month plus expenses during legislative sessions.

One of Association's top priorities Wade worked on in the early 1930s was getting state law changed to give cities with populations above 2,500 access to state funds to pave roads. Check out Chapter 3 in the book to learn more about this early legislative challenge.

All municipal officials attending the Annual Meeting received a copy of the book, and the Association mailed a copy to every city last month. Additional copies are available for order here.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Annual meeting highlights from the Twitter feed and app

This year’s Annual Meeting saw a jump in the use of the meeting app and Twitter as a way to keep participants updated and informed during the meeting.

Take a look below at a few of these social media highlights. Handouts and other collateral material from the meeting are here.

In celebration of the Association's 85th anniversary of service to the state's cities and towns, every municipal registrant received a complimentary copy of the book. Order one here.

Past presidents were honored for their service to the Association at a dinner on Thursday night. Former Spartanburg Mayor John Behr's service went back the furthest. He was president of the Association in 1976 and traveled from his home in Florida for the event.

Keynote speaker Rebecca Ryan wowed the 600+ registrants with insight and advice on preparing for the future beyond just 3 - 5 year strategic plans.
The Association's legislative team briefed participants on bills that passed this session. Tiger Wells explained in detail about new FOIA requirements resulting from legislation and a court case. Learn more about these here.

All the tweets from the meeting can be found here. For anyone attending the meeting, a quick survey is here.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Annual Meeting Day 2 - Lots of High Energy

Day two of the 2015 Annual Meeting started off with the business of the Association electing new officers and congratulating the most recent graduates of the Municipal Elected Officials Institute. The focus of celebrating the past and embracing the future continued through today's activities.

Next up was the unveiling of the Association's history book recognizing its 85-year history. Former Executive Director Howard Duvall spent the past seven years researching the history of the Association which resulted in the 80-page history book. 

Filled with organizational history overlaid with state and local politics, the book makes for a quick and really interesting read. All municipal registrants at the meeting received a copy of the book, and it's for sale from the Association for $25. All cities will receive a copy of the book in the next week.

The keynote speaker, Rebecca Ryan, wowed the 600+ officials gathered for opening session with her ideas about how to plan for the future beyond the basics of strategic planning. Her remarks left officials inspired and awed with her high energy aspirations for South Carolina cities and towns. Following the session, Ryan was swamped like a rock star with officials thanking her for her insights and direction.

After the keynote address, Ryan led a break-out session focusing on the Charleston metro area's long-range planning project she led last year with the business community. In a matter of three days, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce pared hundreds of challenges for the future into  the two major priorities for the next 15 years...and a plan to meet those challenges.

At the beginning of that session, Ryan had a conversation with Mayor Joe Riley who gave his recollection of the first hours following the Emmanuel Church shootings. The room was still and silent as he recounted how the people of Charleston quickly came together in a spirit of grace and forgiveness. 

Riley said he knew his community would react with "love and unity." He noted that this type of community unity is important not only in times of tragedy like this but also when things are going well.

Afternoon sessions gave participants a chance to see demonstrations of drones, a Tesla and Microsoft products. Others participated in sessions about the sharing economy, avoiding financial pitfalls and disaster recovery.

The Achievement Awards and exhibition hall are highlights of Saturday's agenda.