The important responsibility of advocacy

​Local elected officials serve important roles representing their residents and businesses. However, another crucial aspect of their job is to advocate for good governance across the state.

The Association offers an advocacy handbook, "Raising Hometown Voices to a New Level of Influence," that encourages mayors and councilmembers to make their voices heard at the State House and provides instruction on how to go about it, according to Casey Fields, manager for municipal advocacy.

"Local elected leaders are the most effective voice at the State House—they share a constituency with legislators and understand being accountable to voters," Fields said.

Skip Jenkins, Elise Partin, Nikki Setzler
Councilmember Skip Jenkins and Mayor Elise Partin meet with
Senator Nikki Setzler to advocate for Cayce and all S.C. cities and towns.

For many municipal officials, the benefits of positive relationships with local legislative leaders are clear.

"From a basic standpoint, having some sort of relationship is valuable and valid between elected officials. Your constituencies will overlap in some regard," said Greer Mayor Rick Danner. "Also, having a familiarity of who represents your constituency and you as well is important. We’re elected officials but constituents as well. It behooves all of us to know who represents us."

Many legislators don’t have firsthand experience in running cities. They look to local elected officials about issues facing municipalities, said Florence City Councilmember Robby Hill.

"Nothing changes their mind better than a true story about constituents. No one is in a better position to bring them those stories than a local elected official," Hill said.

Sometimes initiatives get started in the legislature and municipalities don’t understand the drive behind them, according to Isle of Palms Mayor Dick Cronin. Having a relationship with the local legislative delegation helps municipal leaders understand how certain pieces of legislation may impact them or why they are needed in other municipalities, he said.

For instance, Cronin has worked with his local legislators on issues unique to the coast, such as beach preservation and the use of golf carts. While these issues may not be relevant in the Upstate, they are important to the Lowcountry, he said. In these situations, local legislators can convey the need for certain bills to other legislators.

A strong relationship with legislators helps to keep them aware of issues going on at home, added Mayor Alys Lawson of Conway and current Association president.

"When I discuss the impact of proposed legislation with them, I use local examples that will help them relate," Lawson said. "I also think it is important to discuss our cities and towns with them informally, when we are not asking for anything. Keeping them engaged throughout the year really helps when they have votes to cast. I always remind them that this is their home, too."

Municipal Association's advocacy strategy map
The Association’s advocacy strategy map stresses the importance
of sharing good news stories about cities and towns with the media and legislators.

Municipal officials can make contact with their legislators through events hosted by the Municipal Association such as the annual Hometown Legislative Action Day that bring together elected officials from across the state. It’s also a good idea to invite legislators to events hosted in their district and to set up regular and informal meetings. Most elected officials also would welcome municipal leaders to a meeting in Columbia, Danner advised.

Mayor Danner said the most frequent interactions between local and state elected officials involve helping constituents. Together they work to resolve issues such as problems with the roads and questions or assistance with social service agencies.

Other times, the partnership is needed on larger projects, like downtown revitalization or budget funding. Lawson credited her strong relationships with the Horry County delegation in overriding a state budget veto on a grant for a historic preservation/economic development project in Conway.

"This was a project that was mentioned to our senator while we were riding on a float together in a local parade," Lawson said. "When the funds included in the budget were in danger, I discussed the project and its benefits to the community with the entire delegation. They were willing to take the floor to garner votes needed to override the veto and reinstate the funding in the budget. We succeeded."

For their part, several state lawmakers agree that it is important to maintain close and positive working relationships with municipal leaders.

"When local elected officials work in concert with the legislative delegation members, the individuals that we serve benefit," said State Sen. Kevin Johnson. "We should never perceive each other as being competition to one another. Once we are elected, it’s not about us; it’s all about the people we serve." Johnson is the former mayor of Manning.

Dialogue between local and state leaders enhances policy making and implementation, said State Rep. Chandra Dillard. Dillard is a former city councilmember from Greenville.

"Sometimes state legislators set policy which may be well intentioned, but they may not know the impact their legislation could have on local government operations and the constituents," she said. "And vice versa, local officials may have projects the state official can positively impact."

The 2016 Hometown Legislative Action Day will be Wednesday, February 3, at the Columbia Marriott.