Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Updates to the Freedom of Information Act every local official needs to know

By Tiger Wells, government affairs liaison
More than 80 mayors and councilmembers met at ten locations around the state today for the Municipal Elected Officials Institute of Government session focusing on the Freedom of Information Act. Timing for this session is perfect because, last Friday, Gov. McMaster signed H3352 that makes substantive changes to FOIA.

Carolyn Sawyer (left) talks with Bill Taylor, field services manager for the Municipal Association, and Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, during the MEO Institute session on FOIA
The Municipal Association’s handbooks and website information related to FOIA are being updated to reflect these changes. We also got word from the S.C. Press Association that its Public Official's Guide to Compliance with the Freedom of Information Act is undergoing an update too. Until these updates are complete, local officials should refer to this summary to get the details on this new law.

Highlights of the impact of H3352 on local governments.

Legislators crafted H3352 to make all public bodies more responsive to records requests. The bill gives the public faster access to an official ruling when a public body either rejects or otherwise fails to satisfy a FOIA request. The bill also establishes timeframes for the public bodies receiving those requests.

One of the primary provisions of the new law outlines steps that will help public bodies in the stewardship of the public’s resources while granting new certainty to the requester about when records will be available.

For example, public bodies now have 10, rather than the previous 15, days to determine if it can respond to a FOIA request for records less than 24 months old. However, the bill extends the number of days from 15 to 20 that public bodies have to make this determination for records that are more than 24 months old.

Public bodies must now produce requested records within 30 days following its final determination about the availability of the records when they are less than two years old. Public bodies have 35 days for records older than two years.

These new response times also give a little more flexibility than before, since the law now allows the requesting party and public body to agree in writing to further timeline extensions.

Another provision focusing on good stewardship of public resources permits public bodies to deny and request circuit court review of FOIA requests that are overly broad, unduly burdensome, vague, repetitive or otherwise improper. These and other disputed requests would go to a circuit court for a determination. If the circuit court determines that the requested records are not subject to disclosure, the public body will benefit from a good faith finding that will act as a shield protecting it from paying the requesting party’s attorney’s fees and cost if the requester subsequently prevails on appeal.

This document includes details of all the changes resulting from H3352. Watch for notification of updated handbooks and website information in the weekly Uptown Update or check back to the Association’s website.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Get the scoop on the roads bill

By Scott Slatton, legislative and public policy analyst
After three years of trying, the South Carolina General Assembly adopted a state road funding plan last week. While that’s not necessarily news this week, the effects of the plan’s passage will hopefully make news in your city or town in the coming years. Get more details on the bill in last week’s From the Dome to Your Home. 

Senate Transportation Committee considering the 12 cent gas tax
South Carolina’s motor fuel user fee (the gas tax) will rise by a total of 12 cents by 2022, which will generate upwards of $350 million in new money for repair and maintenance of state roads. Unlike other pots of road money that may be diverted to other uses, these new funds will be placed into a trust fund that may only be used for “. . . repairs, maintenance and improvements to the existing transportation system.”

Importantly for cities and towns, the new law increases funding for the C Fund by about half over the next six years, eventually reaching approximately $115 million. That’s about $40 million in new money that cities and towns can seek from their County Transportation Committees for projects on state roads within their boundaries.

The new law adds a seat to the SCDOT commission, bringing the total to nine members. It allows the governor to appoint the commissioners with the advice and consent of the General Assembly. And the law allows the governor to remove SCDOT commissioners without the approval of legislators. This is a significant departure from the past when commissioners were essentially immovable by anyone unless they committed a crime.

To get an increase in the gas tax the General Assembly had to wade into tax policy by creating a menu of new tax credits to help South Carolina residents offset the additional tax they will pay at the pump. The tax policy change that cities and towns should pay attention to is the reduction in the property tax assessment ratio for manufacturers.

The manufacturing property tax assessment ratio will drop from 10.5 percent to 9 percent, but the General Assembly has set aside up to $85 million to offset the potential decrease in property tax revenue to cities, counties and schools. 

The Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office estimates it will take at least ten years before the offset reaches $85 million. And if it does, there is a circuit breaker provision in the law that will not allow the potential loss of property tax revenue to exceed the $85 million.

The law takes effect July 1, but don’t look for work to start right away. As SCDOT Secretary Christy Hall testified frequently at the General Assembly, it will take some time for contractors to staff up and mobilize for the work the new money will generate around the state.

In the meantime, thank your legislators if they voted for the new law. And maybe thank a summer tourist while he’s filling up in your town for helping us take care of our roads.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Celebrating the contributions of municipal clerks

Imagine walking into your office every day with a rack overflowing with hats. You have no idea which hats you will wear over the course of the day or what new hats might appear.

That’s a day in the life of a municipal clerk. And this week of May 7 - 13 is designated as Municipal Clerks’ week by the International Institute of Municipal Clerks to celebrate the valuable work of this role in city government.

One of local government’s oldest positions is the municipal clerk. In South Carolina, state law requires all cities to have an appointed municipal clerk regardless of a municipality's size or form of government. The clerk's responsibilities under state law include giving notice of meetings to council members and the public, keeping minutes of council proceedings, and performing other duties as assigned by council.

Greenville City Clerk Camilla Pittman, MMC, MFOCTA president, 
and West Pelzer Town Clerk/Administrator Paula Payton, CMC, at the
recent MCTI spring session.
The title "clerk" as we know it developed from the Latin “clericus.” During the Middle Ages, when scholarship and writing were limited to the clergy, clerk came to mean a scholar, especially one who could read, write, and thus serve as notary, secretary, accountant and recorder.

The beginning of the office of city clerk in England can be traced back to 1272 in the history of the Corporation of Old London. The "Remembrancer" was called upon to remind the councilors (members of the council) what had transpired at their previous meetings, since the meeting of the early councils were not recorded in written minutes.

Over the years, municipal clerks have become the hub of city government. The increasingly diverse and complex responsibilities of a municipal clerk have prompted the need for ongoing education to help clerks stay on top of trends, technology and changes in the law.

The SC Municipal Finance Officers, Clerks and Treasurers Association is the only organization in the state that provides training targeted specifically for municipal clerks. MFOCTA offers a diversity of classes and training programs throughout the year on topics as varied as compliance with the Freedom of Information Act to basic budgeting and parliamentary procedure to business licensing.  MFOCTA is the state affiliate of the International Institute of Municipal Clerks.

Additionally, the Municipal Clerks and Treasurers Institute is a multi- year program established in 1979 to give clerks more in-depth training. MCTI is the IIMC-approved state training institute.

This year, the Municipal Association introduced the first in a series of online training classes for clerks. This training is especially useful for clerks in small towns because often they aren’t able to take time away from city hall to attend out-of-town training.

The distinguished political scientist, Professor William Bennett Munro, writing in one of the first textbooks on municipal administration in 1934, stated: "No other office in municipal service has so many contracts. It serves the mayor, the city council, the city manager (when there is one), and all administrative departments without exception. All of them call upon it, almost daily, for some service or information. Its work is not spectacular, but it demands versatility, alertness, accuracy, and no end of patience. The public does not realize how many loose ends of city administration this office pulls together."

These words, written more than 80 years ago, are still fitting today.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Walk, bike drive?

By Sarita Chourey; content manager and Uptown editor
Travelers Rest Mayor Wayne McCall lives about a block from the Swamp Rabbit Trail — and that’s led to some unusual requests.
“You’d be surprised how many people, when I’d be out cutting the grass or doing something the yard, would come up and say, ‘Do you want to sell your house?’” he said.

“I’m like, ‘No, I don’t want to sell my house.’ But (they respond), ‘We want to live here because you’re a block away from the trail.’”

The nearly 20-mile multi-use greenway system links the cities of Travelers Rest and Greenville. The trail, located on a former rail bed, connects Greenville County with schools, parks, and local businesses.

McCall was one of six participants on a panel Thursday at the  Mayor's Bike and Walk Summit in Columbia. The others participants were City of Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, City of Anderson Mayor Terence Roberts, City of Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols, City of Greenville Councilmember Amy Ryberg-Doyle and City of Charleston Design Division Director Allen Davis.

The City of Columbia hosted the event, which was organized by the Palmetto Conservation Foundation, Palmetto Cycling Coalition,S.C. Safe Routes to School Resource Center and the American Diabetes Association.

The point McCall was making is that walkability, whether a trail or pedestrian-and-bike friendly design, draws visitors (more than 500,000 users annually to the Swamp Rabbit Trail), homebuyers, business investments and other benefits that come with a high quality of life.

Some questions posed during the panel discussion included:
  • How do you change the public’s attitude toward walking relatively short distances and stop, for instance, expecting a parking spot to be right in front of a restaurant?
  • If a city’s trails or walkability gets “too” popular, what are the implications for longstanding residents in the event of gentrification and displacement?  
  • How do cities add parking in a way that still encourages other modes of transportation, while also enhancing a city’s appearance and sustainability?
One audience member who had lived in Europe said European cities are not having the same debate. Instead, they are trying to come up with ways to reduce the number of cars in town, not to better accommodate more and more cars, he said.

Why not leapfrog the current conversation about parking — on-street spots, subterranean and surface lots, vertical garages, retail-on-the-bottom garages — and cut straight to the debate European cities are having about how to have fewer personally owned automobiles in cities and what that means for the non-motoring public?

A central dilemma is how to address the reality that cities must accommodate existing population pressures and demands while also preparing for an age when, perhaps, ride-booking businesses, autonomous vehicles and other innovations will call for new and different infrastructure.

“A much more thoughtful use of public resources always contemplates the fact that we don't know where we’re going to be in 30 years,” said Benjamin. “We’ve got some pretty good indicators, so we need to make sure we don’t over-build in a way that we could have used some of those very same dollars in a much more effective way to actually go where we know our public wants to go.”

This topic will be explored more in-depth in the upcoming summer issue of Cities Mean Business magazine and the July issue of Uptown.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Mayors share success stories

Get a group of enthusiastic mayors in a room and good ideas are bound to get bounced around. That was the case at the inaugural Mayors' Conference in Columbia. Several mayors took advantage of a meeting agenda item to share a success story (in three minutes or less) that’s unique to their city.

Here’s some of what they talked about:

Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page. In this growing city of 83,000, city leaders found that a high percentage of the calls coming into the fire department weren’t actually fire calls. They were calls related to some type of medical emergency. The fire department doesn’t transfer patients. EMS does. But in many cases the fire truck was the first on the scene.
Rather than sending the $800,000 ladder truck to the scene for these types of medical calls, the department now sends a completely outfitted $75,000 quick response vehicle manned by a fire fighter and paramedic. The vehicle looks like a mid-sized SUV and is a much more efficient way to respond to these calls. “The person who is needed on the scene is the person who is there,” Page said. 
Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall. The Town of Lexington faces strangling traffic concerns in downtown and surrounding arteries. Despite being a town with a population of 17,870, the police department services about 168,000 people daily who travel to and through Lexington, and roads are at capacity. Main Street alone serves more than 17,000 daily.

Instead of widening roads, town leaders found a system that ties together all the traffic lights in the town using computer technology. DOT has paid the city to take over operation of all the traffic lights in the town. Using the funds DOT paid, the town hired a traffic engineer to manage a system of synchronized lights. There are 19 signals already installed with all 36 to be connected by end of the year. Lexington is the first city in U.S. with every light linked and talking to each other. Studies already indicate a 20 percent increased traffic flow. “The $5.2 million price tag is considerably less than building new roads,” MacDougall said. 

Lancaster Mayor John Howard. When Springs Industries decided to take down its Lancaster plant, the city got a large building that had been an R&D /engineering facility. City leaders did some brainstorming to decide the best way to use the building. They noted a need for a training facility for public safety and set out to convert part of the space to that use. The facility uses scenarios laid out in real time that gives officers hands-on field training. The city also makes the facility available to other public safety entities all over in the southeast.

Springdale Mayor Michael Bishop. Although Springdale is small in population and area, it’s still easy for residents to sometimes feel disconnected from neighbors and what’s happening in the community. One Saturday a month, the town holds a cookout for residents. Town leaders identify a willing neighbor to offer up his yard or find a cul-de-sac where they set up picnic tables. The town supplies hamburgers, hot dogs and Springdale branded water bottles. Neighbors walk there and talk with people they may not know. Town leaders find out about issues like pot holes and overgrown shrubs impeding sidewalks.

"It kind of turns into an informal town hall meeting with 30 to 60 people generally showing up,” said Bishop.

Inman Mayor Cornelius Huff. Inman leaders identified a concern in town was that the elderly population had been running the town with little input from young residents. Council decided to start building new leaders even before students graduated from high school. They established the Mayors Youth Council that includes 25 juniors and seniors from the local high school.

The students meet three times ,and the school has given them class time to meet. Three teachers oversee the program with the blessing of the school district. The students have taken over the town’s social media presence to keep residents updated on what’s happening in town. They participate in activities such as stocking the local food pantry and helping with the annual Relay for Life event.

The students make a report to every city council meeting about their activities, and the mayor lets one of the youth council members preside at the beginning of a council meeting. Recently the students in the program spent two days in Lake City sharing their success with leaders and students there. Huff said, “It has transformed our town.” 

Travelers Rest Mayor Wayne McCall. Ten years ago the city and county collaborated to buy the old Travelers Rest School site. The county constructed its new building on its part of the site. The city has built a fire station and farmers market on the site. Just last week, the mayor signed off on the bonds to build the new city hall on the site. The hope down the road is to also move the local history museum to the site which is located downtown and just steps from the popular Swamp Rabbit Trail.

Mayor McCall mentioned two other recent success stories. One was the city hosting the hit Netflix program “Kindness Diaries” in town this week, and the second was USA Today naming TR as the fourth best southern town in the country.