Tuesday, September 26, 2017

FOIA in flux: Topic at upcoming MFOCTA meeting

By Tiger Wells, government affairs liaison

They say in life, change is the only constant. When it comes to the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act, the last few years have certainly proven that statement true.

There is a lot to review - whether observing the back and forth between the S.C. Supreme Court and General Assembly on issues related to meeting agendas, witnessing the fallout resulting from public bodies that have handled executive sessions improperly, or participating in the educational blitz that resulted from the legislature’s recent overhaul of FOIA related to fee schedules and such.

In 2014, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that agendas are not required for regularly scheduled local government meetings. That opinion, however was immediately undone by the S.C. General Assembly in 2015. 

Not only did the General Assembly pass legislation expressly requiring an agenda for such meetings, but it also laid out how agendas may be amended within 24 hours of a meeting.

In 2015, 2016 and 2017, South Carolina courts reprimanded local governing bodies for either entering executive session improperly by failing to announce the specific purpose for the executive session, or for improperly taking action after executive session without giving the public notice of such action. In those cases, municipalities and counties paid penalties ranging from just north of $13,000 to somewhere in the realm of $40,000. Costly lessons for sure.

Finally, in 2017, everyone following events at the State House witnessed the culmination of several years of work by legislators, the S.C. Press Association, the Municipal Association and various other stakeholder organizations and individuals with the passage of a significant FOIA overhaul in H.3352. This legislation introduced a number of changes regarding S.C. public bodies’ handling of public business.

Along with the changes made to FOIA, the legislation included expanded protections for personal information through changes to the Family Privacy Protection Act. The Municipal Association specifically addressed best practices for handling FOIA requests for information that could be used for commercial solicitation through educational conference calls and follow-up correspondence specifically addressing the issue of commercial solicitation.

From new fee schedule requirements to expanded protection against burdensome, vague, repetitive and otherwise improper FOIA requests, there was plenty in this legislation for advocates of efficient and effective government and transparency.

In response to these recent changes, the S.C. Press Association has updated its FOIA handbook.

It is said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. In the context of conducting the public’s business, this statement is widely accepted by government leaders as true. Perhaps more importantly, it has come to be expected and appreciated by the public itself. 

The October meeting of the Municipal Finance Officers and Clerk Treasurers Association in Spartanburg will feature attorneys Lawrence Flynn and C.D. Rhodes presenting a timely guide through all of the FOIA flux mentioned above. Registration deadline is Friday, October 6.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Social media helps local leaders during Irma

This week’s hurricane reminds us all about the importance of planning and preparation. But it’s not just about evacuation plans, inventory of sandbags and public safety readiness.

The ability to communicate effectively in an emergency can mean the difference between a smooth process and a disastrous one.

This week’s earlier blog post showcases how Bluffton and Edisto Beach effectively used social media as part of their emergency communications plans. An article in the January issue of Uptown, showcased Mount Pleasant and North Charleston’s social media use last year during Hurricane Matthew.

Back in June, members of the SC Association of Municipal Power Systems participated in a session at their annual meeting that gave step by step plans for incorporating social media into emergency preparedness planning. Get the handout.

Still a little intimidated about hashtags? Don’t quite understand the difference between Twitter and Facebook? Not sure how to grow your base of fans and friends? Take a look at this glossary the SCAMPS members got during their session this summer that outlines what all this means.

Here are a few tips on integrating social media into your emergency preparedness plans:

•    Remind followers and friends to adjust their settings to receive a notification when new information is posted.

•    Plan ahead. Setting up social media accounts on the fly during an emergency can be counter-productive.

•    Get training on equipment. Even if you’re just using a cell phone for Facebook Live broadcasts, make sure the phone has a fully charged battery. Check the lighting to make sure everyone who needs to be seen in the video is well lit. Run a quick sound check to make sure the audio of the person speaking is clear and the ambient sound doesn’t overwhelm the speaker.

•    Ensure everyone who needs access to the sites has it. The middle of a hurricane isn’t the time to be searching out passwords or debating who has access.

•    Be consistent. Scheduling Facebook Live briefings in advance to help drive traffic.

•    Work with other officials involved with the emergency to share and retweet posts. There’s no need for everyone to be creating the same content. Leverage other information sources to share.

•    Put one person in charge of managing the social media. This doesn’t mean one person has to do it all, but one person needs to be aware of what’s going out and what’s being planned at all times to avoid duplication and ensure accuracy.

•    Keep equipment charged at all times. Make use of the small portable USB chargers. The middle of a Facebook Live briefing isn’t the time to lose the phone’s charge.

Get more social media resources on the Association's website.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Cities showcase collaboration during Irma: Social media and mutual aid

A crisis can often bring people together in ways we don't expect. The past week with Irma's progress has illustrated in several ways how crises bring out the collaborative spirit in South Carolina cities.

There are so many great examples of leaders of South Carolina cities and towns taking full advantage of the collaborative nature of social media as they anticipated impact from Irma. Elected officials, police chiefs, EMD officials and others made frequent use of Facebook Live and posted often with safety updates and photos/videos of affected areas.

Facebook followers could adjust their personal settings to get notifications when a Facebook Live event was happening helping hundreds of people stay on top of the ever-changing forecast.

Coastal cities leverage social media
Take a look at what a couple of coastal cities have been doing.

Bluffton: A constant stream of photo and video updates on Facebook gave residents who stayed and those who evacuated up-to-the-minute updates on flooding, evacuation routes and general safety tips. Mayor Sulka’s informal and frequent updates prompted lots of positive feedback from residents and others who have visited Bluffton.

Several Facebook posts gave shout-outs to city staff members who were quickly dispatched to clean up debris. The town Facebook page and the police department Facebook cross-posted many posts allowing a great reach for both.

The town's Facebook page also shared links to the Governor's press conferences and other messages from the state Emergency Management Division.

Edisto Beach: With their second big hurricane hit in less than a year, Edisto officials already knew the power of social media to disseminate safety information and help residents find out about the state of their property. In fact, during the aftermath of Matthew, Mayor Jane Darby’s Facebook post about the plight of Nichols went viral and brought in many offers of help for the small Pee Dee town even while her own town was digging out. The Irma response was no different. 

Mayor Darby used her page to keep people informed, while also cross-posting with the town’s page and the police department’s page.

The Edisto Beach Facebook page also shared links to local news media coverage giving residents and others a one-stop-shop for information.

Mutual aid for municipal electric utilities
The state’s 21 electric cities initially came together more than 30 years ago to form the SC Association of Municipal Power Systems to serve as a conduit for mutual aid in emergencies. The power of this collaboration is never more evident than in a situation like Irma.

Jimmy Bagley, Rock Hill’s deputy city manager, has long been the point of contact for SCAMPS member-utilities offering and needing assistance. Already, Camden has sent crews to help in Sandersville, GA. Crews from several SCAMPS cities are on site today in Seneca and Laurens helping to restore power. Additionally plans are in place for a caravan of SCAMPS crews and equipment to leave tomorrow morning to assist the Jacksonville Energy Authority.

Watch for upcoming posts with tips on using social media in a crisis.

Monday, September 11, 2017

2016 grant winners showing progress: 2017 applications due Sept. 29

Success can be slow in coming sometimes. But when it comes to the Municipal Association’s Hometown Economic Development Grants program, results have come quickly for several cities and towns that were awarded grants in 2016. 

Beaufort Digital Corridor
The Beaufort Digital Corridor opened in January in the City of Beaufort and has already attracted several tenants who are using the BASEcamp hub to incubate their high-tech startups. This local news report describes the program.

The Town of West Pelzer and the Town of Pelzer teamed up to win a grant to fund a master plan for their shared Main Street. This local newspaper article describes the plan that will help guide the towns’ collective futures as they prepare for growth.

One of the three winners of the Gaffney Main Street Challenge is already open for business in downtown Gaffney while the others will be opening soon, providing much-needed foot traffic for other downtown merchants. Read more about the challenge’s winners in this local newspaper article and from this local television report.
Ridgeway School Arch

The Town of Ridgeway finished “Painting the Town Red with Revitalization” when work to stabilize the historic school arch and the world’s smallest police station was recently completed. Read more about Ridgeway’s success in this Uptown article.

Walterboro is making progress toward wrapping up its engineering plans for the
Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary Discovery Center and will be putting the project out for bid soon. Read this local news article for more information.

Building on the program’s initial success, the Association’s board of directors increased funding for the program for more grants that will enhance economic development opportunities and have a positive effect on residents’ quality of life. At least ten grants of a maximum of $25,000 each will be awarded in 2017.

Online applications for 2017 grant awards are being accepted until September 29, and winners will be announced no later than October 31. Get more information and details on the application process.