Thursday, September 24, 2020

Virtual Sessions Keep the Training Going

The interruption of in-person meetings in 2020 as a pandemic precaution has not stopped online training opportunities from the Municipal Association. 

The Municipal Elected Officials Institute of Government, for example, replaced in-person sessions for the fall with online courses in October, but it has also maintained a variety of online, on-demand training sessions. The on-demand courses address such topics as budgeting and municipal finance, forms of municipal government, the SC Freedom of Information Act, municipal economic development as well as municipal governance and policy. The MEO Institute will host a virtual Advanced Continuing Education session on October 13, as well as a virtual session on Advanced Municipal Economic Development on October 14. 

In the spring, the Association launched the “Online Orientation Training for Planning and Zoning Officials.” That six-hour course, available to elected officials as well as relevant staff at no charge, covers a state training requirement for all officials working in that area. 
In the fall, Risk Management Services began to host online training sessions. It launched “Workers’ Compensation Nuts and Bolts” for members of the SC Municipal Insurance Trust and SC Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund. This fall, it will host several virtual trainings for SCMIT and SCMIRF members: 
Many of the Municipal Association’s affiliate associations are also creating online versions of their scheduled annual meetings and quarterly meetings. Find the list of all of them on the Association’s Training Calendar.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Preparing and Executing Effective Virtual Meetings

Some city and town councils have moved their meetings to virtual formats because of the pandemic. Some boards, commissions and committees have also changed their meetings into virtual events. Virtual meetings create difficulties for conducting meetings — speakers muting and unmuting themselves, or participants trying to avoid talking over one another. 

These challenges can make the planning and preparation that go into meetings all the more important. The Municipal Association has a handbook, How to Conduct Effective Meetings, which can help with many of the aspects of preparing for and participating in meetings. 

For example, the handbook includes the importance of a council adopting rules of procedures, which is required by state law in SC Code Section 5-7-250(b). Using Roberts’s Rules of Order provides one way to satisfy the requirement. Even so, Robert’s Rules are not designed for a city or town council, so using them exclusively can create difficulties. The handbook contains a set of sample rules of order that councils can modify for local needs and then adopt. 

Another critical consideration is the process of establishing an agenda and publicly distributing it. The SC Freedom of Information Act requires public notification of meetings, with agendas, 24 hours in advance for all meetings where there will be a quorum of council, whether the meeting is in person or virtual. Once the agenda and agenda packet are complete, every councilmember needs to receive the agenda packet at relatively the same time well in advance of the meeting — for example, the weekend before the meeting. This allows councilmembers the critical time they need to familiarize themselves with material and ask staff questions as needed. 

The presiding officer's role in a council meeting, ordinarily the mayor, is critical to the process. The presiding officer needs to be familiar with the rules of order adopted by the city or town and work to facilitate the meeting both firmly and courteously. The person in this role should help make sure that only one councilmember speaks at a time, and that every voice on council is allowed to speak. The presiding officer should also ensure that residents who wish to make comments do so only at designated times. Presiding over meetings is one of the topics covered in the How to Conduct Effective Meetings handbook

More information 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Downtown Programs Rise to the Challenge

By Jenny Boulware, Main Street SC Manager 

Experts have told us that we should continue to plan for frequent interruptions and modifications to business operations from the pandemic. Is your leadership and economic development team ready to help ensure a healthy community as we enter the fall and winter season? The time is now to make changes to adapt and ensure that South Carolina’s local economies remain resilient.

For innovative, adaptive ideas, we are highlighting two of Main Street South Carolina’s communities: Main Street Hartsville and See Lancaster. Each has creatively assisted their small businesses with real solutions to stressed economies. 

By tapping into public and private support, the Hartsville community developed a micro-loan program known as the All-America City Comeback Campaign that assisted 38 businesses and provided more than $150,000 in direct assistance. 

Lancaster used a gift card program to infuse more than $50,000 into its downtown businesses. All 170 city employees were given a $300 gift card redeemable at local businesses that opted to participate. This program was so impactful that it will return during the holiday season in the form of $100 gift cards for all city employees. 

In the past several months, event cancellations have been a constant, but we have also seen new ways of hosting events. One resourceful modification to meet social distancing measures is drive-in movie nights. This public gathering variation got a positive reception from Lancaster residents. Additionally, local event sponsors have allowed cancelled event monies to be used for new programming as seen in Hartsville with their just-launched discounted gift certificate. 

When canceling or modifying planned activities, constant communication is a must. In fact, with limited community interactions at the moment, communicating positive messages is important. Hartsville and Lancaster have seen increased engagement on social media posts (See some of Hartsville’s efforts here and Lancaster’s here) that celebrate building renovations, business expansions and public projects. Increased awareness of these positive activities cultivate excitement and hope for the future. 

We talked about these practical solutions with the leaders of these two programs — Suzy Moyd in Hartsville and Joe Timmons in Lancaster — in a recent episode of the City Quick Connect podcast. These are two fantastic program directors and they’re doing amazing work in their communities.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Log on for the 2020 Virtual Regional Advocacy Meetings

Why should you virtually attend the Regional Advocacy Meetings this year?

By Casey Fields, Manager for Municipal Advocacy 

Municipal Association legislative staff started traveling around the state every fall for advocacy meetings in 2006. In fact, when I started at the Association in October 2006, it was one of the first things I did — I went to Conway for a regional advocacy meeting. Over the last 14 years, we’ve made some changes and seen some new faces, but the message has remained the same: we are a team, and we work together to represent municipal interests at the State House. 

This year will be a little different. Falling in line with a lot of firsts in 2020, this is the first year the Regional Advocacy Meetings are virtual, and will take place from August 18 to September 9, all at 11 a.m. In years past, we’ve had to cancel a meeting or two because of hurricanes, but we have never moved all of them to a virtual platform. 

I know what you’re thinking: not another one of these. We’ve all got some virtual meeting fatigue at this point, but this one is going to be valuable and I’m here to tell you why. 

First, it’s going to be quick – one hour, no drive time. You can mute yourself and just listen to the information. You can offer your suggestions through email before or after, or participate live during the meeting. 

Second, you can meet the new members of the legislative team, Erica Wright and Joannie Nickel. Both of these women bring a multitude of experience in legislative politics, local government and economic development. You will love them like we already do. 

Third, we are packing A LOT of information into the one hour. State and federal funding updates, election updates, legislative updates and more … all from the comfort of your home or office. You will hear information about the upcoming September legislative session and discuss potential topics for the new 2021 session beginning in January. 

We will talk about H4431, the business license billthat’s still up for consideration in the September session. We will talk about additional COVID-19 federal funding for cities and towns, absentee ballots for the November election and what changes have already taken place from the June primaries to change the committee structure in both the House and Senate. We will discuss major issues looming for the new 2021 legislative session beginning in January and the state budget that lawmakers will be debating in September. 

I told you it was a lot. Why participate? Why listen in? Why register? Because you are an important member of the team and we are all counting on you to be a loud, strong and knowledgeable advocate for cities and towns. This is your chance to be in the know and to get the information straight from us. 

You would think that I get a commission based on the amount of people that sign up for Regional Advocacy Meeting. I don’t. I just really love it when our municipal team comes together to talk about working for the future of our cities and towns. And I love to see your faces. Even if only on a screen. 

Do I wish we were traveling to a location near you and sharing a hug and a meal together? Absolutely. Just because we can’t meet in person, it is still just as important to gather together on a screen and share thoughts as we look to the future of cities and towns. Hopefully, next year I will see you in person, hug you and enjoy a sweet tea. 

Register for the Virtual Regional Advocacy Meetings here. You can sign up for the one for your council of governments area or for any of the others.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Annual Meeting Examines COVID-19

COVID-19, the reason why the Municipal Association of SC staged its first-ever Virtual Annual Meeting this year, also provided the primary topic of discussion for the conference. In a series of videos that remain available on the Municipal Association’s website, officials from various backgrounds dug into the effects of the ongoing pandemic and ways that cities and towns can address it. 

During the Annual Meeting's live portion, Inman Mayor Cornelius Huff expressed regret that the meeting could not happen in person. He noted that city leaders face major challenges, ranging from the pandemic and its economic fallout to the renewed movement to end excessive police force issues. 

“I know that together, as one team, as one South Carolina, we will make it,” Huff said. “But we have to do it together. We will work together to overcome our challenges and come out better on the other side.” 

Here’s a few examples of the Virtual Annual Meeting video sessions: 

South Carolina and COVID-19: Response and Recovery 

Dr. Shaniece Criss is a Travelers Rest City Council member, and she also serves as a health sciences professor at Furman University. Criss joined State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell to discuss the ways local government can help slow down the contagion. 

Bell noted that the prolonged period of disease transmission will likely remain a challenge, but cities and towns can take valuable steps at the local level. They can help with education on prevention, help build partnerships with community health providers, schools and the faith community to improve access to care. 

Given the unlikelihood of a COVID-19 vaccination in the near future, Bell said that the most critical tools for protection of residents and protection in places of business remain high levels of physical distancing and the use of masks. She also noted that South Carolina had become nationally noteworthy for its virus spread, and that the spread had worsened among young people. 

“There are people in the population who are putting us all at risk. As those behaviors continue, it’s going to prolong the period of time that we’re going to continue to see illnesses in our community, hospitalizations and even deaths. If communities can come together and recognize that this is not just for the individual, but it is a collective response that’s required,” Bell said. 

Voting in a Pandemic: The Challenge That COVID-19 Poses To Elections in SC 

South Carolina has now staged a primary election in a pandemic and faces a presidential election in November. Chris Whitmire, director of public information and training for the SC State Election Commission, explained the social-distancing challenges of elections in a conversation with Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon. 

“The biggest issue is that elections today are conducted pretty much like they were 100, 200 years ago. We gather at a place, near where we live, in our neighborhoods. We gather together with our neighbors and we cast ballots,” he said. 

For the June primaries, the General Assembly allowed all voters to vote absentee. The record for absentee ballots in primary jumped from around 60,000 to more than 200,000, Whitmire said. Also, the majority of absentees voted by mail, where in the past most absentee voters submitted ballots in person. If the General Assembly were to allow full absentee voting in November, he said, 1.5 million people could vote absentee, with 1 million of them doing so by mail. 

Some issues making the voting process more difficult include the high-risk age of many poll managers, and fewer locations willing to serve as polling places, given the large volume of people. 

“It will be key for everybody who’s eligible to be able to vote absentee, that will take the pressure off polling places on Election Day,” Whitmire said. 

The CARES Act Explained 

South Carolina received more than $1.9 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. It will be providing some of that funding to local governments as reimbursements for COVID-19-related expenditures, including $20 million for expenses that took place from March through June, and other funds for expenses made during the remainder of the year. Brian Gaines, division director of the SC Department of Administration’s Executive Budget Office, discussed the process with Municipal Association Executive Director Todd Glover. 

Glover noted that cities cannot use the funding for revenue replacement, and Gaines described some of the things funds can be used for — personal protective equipment, telework or telehealth expenses, testing and treatment, among others. The state has engaged the consulting firm Guidehouse, Inc. to vet reimbursement requests, and each city’s designated point of contact will make requests through an online portal, with some communication afterward about appropriate documentation. 

“It’s not going to be as simple as uploading receipts and getting a payment back. You’re going to have to demonstrate that these are expenses that are directly related to COVID-19,” Gaines said. 

The Virtual Annual Meeting webpage features all of the conference’s videos, including sessions on elected leadership, economic outlooks, police procedures, federal legislation and business license standardization.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Special Event Considerations During the Pandemic

The battle of the bands. The local food festival. The summer soiree. These are some of the local gatherings that residents treasure, and have missed during the pandemic. Given the need for safe and responsible social distancing during COVID-19, when is it safe to host public events? 

Last month, Main Street South Carolina and the South Carolina Festival & Event Association worked together on the accelerateSC guideline document Guidelines for Re-opening: Festivals & Events. The SC Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism initiated the project and asked the two organizations to create a task force to develop this guidance. 

Well-respected, seasoned event planners — including Main Street SC representation from Aiken, Florence, Greenwood, Hartsville and Laurens — spent weeks researching, deliberating, evaluating and proposing best practices. The document is designed to provide thorough and specific guidance to community festivals and special events across South Carolina. As a guidance document, it does not mandate or authorize what can and should be done. It does, however, provide considerations to evaluate when making decisions about public events: 

  • Consulting with your local authorities. How can you address crowd capacity and control the number of attendees?
  • Assessing your budget. Can you meet additional health and safety protocols? 
  • Evaluating logistics. What are your plans for attendees that may become ill on-site? 
  • Communicating with all participants. How can attendees be prepared for the event?

For crowd capacity, another accelerateSC guideline document can be instructive — Guidelines for Re-opening: Mass Gatherings or Large Community Events. This particular document strongly recommends no events over 250 attendees, and notes that the cutoff threshold is at the discretion of community leadership. It also suggests criteria to think about when considering postponing or canceling a large gathering.

If in-person is not possible at this time, evaluate alternatives. Host virtual activities via online platforms or revise events in a way that can help reduce risks. Newberry, for example, is offering its summer outdoor movie series as a drive-in experience. Bennettsville also took this approach to its Fourth of July fireworks show. 

Find the guidance document on festivals and events here.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Hurricane Preparedness During the Pandemic

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a critical and evolving situation, it’s important to remember that June 1 brought the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season. With three named storms by the first week of June, this promises to be an active season. 

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Pete Gaynor recently wrote a letter advising emergency managers that the NOAA Climate Prediction Center’s 2020 outlook on hurricanes in the Atlantic has forecasted a 60% chance of an above-normal season. 

City and town leaders should promote safeguards for the vulnerable and encourage ongoing social distancing even during hurricanes. 

Here’s a few pointers to consider amid the pandemic: 

  • Educate residents to think about stocking supplies that are not readily available, such as extra masks, and prescription medications.
  • If evacuation plans call for the use of buses, consider spacing to allow social distancing or provide additional personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as face masks.
  • Encourage residents to evacuate to the homes of family or friends, and use shelters as a last resort.
  • Consider a medical screening process at city emergency shelters to reduce the exposure of those with COVID-19 symptoms, and consider an alternate shelter location for individuals infected with the virus.
  • Determine the maximum capacity at shelters and secure additional space if necessary to accommodate social distancing.
  • Serve meals cafeteria-style instead of buffet-style for those in shelters. 

While a few considerations are mentioned here, FEMA’s publication, COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance for the 2020 Hurricane Season, includes additional information as you plan and prepare for this hurricane season.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Virtual Annual Meeting to Explore COVID-19, Law Enforcement, Legislation

An in-person Annual Meeting for the Municipal Association of SC is not happening for 2020, but preparations are well underway for its online equivalent. 

Individual conference sessions, available through streaming video, will go online on the Municipal Association’s website on Friday, July 17. The Association’s annual business meeting, unlike the other sessions, will take place live at 9 a.m. on July 17. Municipal Association President Cornelius Huff, mayor of Inman, will lead that session. No registration will be needed for city and town officials to participate or to stream the video sessions. 

Here’s a look at the currently planned session topics. 

Several videos will address the impacts of the ongoing pandemic on South Carolina municipalities. These include: 

  • The state’s COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, with a perspective from the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control; 
  • The existing economic impacts of the public health emergency as explained by the SC Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office, and what cities and towns can expect for their finances across the next year; and 
  • Information from the SC State Election Commission about the methods used to keep the voting process safe, both in the June primaries and the November general election. 

Law enforcement 
Jack Ryan of the Legal and Liability Risk Management Institute will lead several law enforcement video sessions. One of these will connect law enforcement practices to COVID-19, addressing how officers should use personal protective equipment and clean equipment. In another session, Ryan will discuss public safety exceptions for information disclosure under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Another session will dig into the other major topic in the news — the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the international protests of police procedures that have followed. This session will cover the appropriate care and restraint of prisoners in police custody. 

Legislation and business licensing 
Kathy Maness, Lexington town councilmember, is now serving as first vice president of the National League of Cities. She and other NLC officials will discuss the ongoing need that local governments have for federal assistance. Another session will explain what cities and towns can expect from the existing Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. 

Also, business licensing served as a significant issue for the General Assembly before the pandemic disruptions, and a business license standardization bill is still pending. Municipal Association staff will emphasize the importance of standardization and the steps cities and towns can take to make the process easier for local businesses. 

Find full information on the Virtual 2020 Annual Meeting webpage. All videos will be available on this page on July 17.

Monday, June 8, 2020

COVID-19 and Reopening City Services

Reopening facilities like city halls and parks while continuing to find ways to reduce coronavirus spread is a task presenting plenty of challenges for city and town governments. With local governments operating in an entirely new situation, there are plenty of questions facing leaders about how to operate public facilities as safely as possible. 

To help, the Risk Management Services of the Municipal Association of SC has developed a list of considerations for leaders to find the best ways to protect both the public and their employees. The continually-updated list now covers many ideas for minimizing contacts that could lead to contagion, setting up cautionary signage and establishing procedures for ongoing cleaning of public areas. 

In many places, parks and recreation facilities are reopening, creating questions for officials about how to best clean playgrounds and gyms, establish new rules for team sports programs and youth camps and manage swimming pools. The checklist also offers ideas for administering these facilities and services as well. 

Beyond the short return-to-work checklist, Risk Management Staff has also pulled together a variety of resources on reopening public buildings, parks and recreation programs and facilities, attractions and municipal court operations. The material comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the governor’s accelerateSC task force and others. 

Find all of the Municipal Association’s coronavirus resources on topics ranging from emergency governance issues to budget planning and business support on this webpage.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Moving South Carolina’s Small Business Community Forward

by Jenny Boulware, Main Street South Carolina manager 

The consequences of COVID-19 have been incredibly far-reaching — for lives, for health and for livelihoods. In recent months, the public and nonprofit sectors have worked tirelessly and resourcefully to help small businesses pivot through the disruptions that the public health emergency has created. As South Carolina works toward recovery, downtown economic development programs are providing critically important guidance to their businesses about reopening.

One of the first recovery initiatives that many of Main Street South Carolina’s communities pursued was the surveying of potential customers to understand their comfort levels for crowds, visiting businesses and online shopping habits. Resident surveys conducted across the state revealed that many consumers want public hand sanitizer stations and expanded online presence for greater shopping options. They wish to avoid large crowds, especially indoors, until the danger is decreased, but even so, the majority of consumers surveyed are ready to patronize businesses again. Survey results have been shared with municipal leadership and the business community to inform reopening processes. 

Other initiatives include providing direct financial assistance to downtown businesses, similar to Paycheck Protection Program funding. Several of South Carolina’s Main Street communities have taken the lead on developing new business models. For instance, the City of Beaufort created ordinances to provide expanded outdoor dining options. Uptown Greenwood and Downtown Florence are examples of those who developed online COVID-19 resource pages — including reopening tips — for local businesses. These are updated daily as new information comes available. Recovery task forces have also been established to guide reopening strategies. 

City and town governments can consider building greater flexibility into local codes to allow for emerging innovations in response to changing realities. This could include providing generous 10-minute parking spaces to accommodate curbside pickups for restaurants and retailers. It could also include developing uniform signage to explain expectations and precautions while shopping, dining and exploring downtown. Coordinated training can assist local businesses who are developing or expanding their online presence. Pages on the city’s website with lists of resources can help small businesses and nonprofits keep up with any available funding opportunities. 

While the pace of reopening is gradual, reviving South Carolina’s local economies with a thorough support plan for reopening is critical. Additional reopening strategies, ideas, hints and tips for businesses, business districts and organizations can be found at the Reopen Main Street website of the Downtown Professionals Network

In April, Main Street directors in Laurens, Florence and Cheraw joined the City Quick Connect podcast to discuss how they are working with businesses and helping them find ways to recover. Listen to the podcast.

In April, South Carolina’s Main Street directors remotely assembled a visual message of appreciation and encouragement for their downtown communities as business owners worked to stay safe and stay in business.