Listening to the People: Public Officials' Accessibility Takes Many Forms

Municipal government is the government closest to residents’ daily lives, since the decisions of local elected officials have an immediately observable effect on the communities where constituents live and work. 

Residents, therefore, need to be able to contact their mayor and councilmembers to raise issues of concern, but exactly how much elected official accessibility should exist is a frequent question. 

Contact information
A city or town website should list a phone number and city-hosted email address for each councilmember. 

“Remember that when you’re elected to public office, you move into a position where people should be able to get in touch with you,” said Charlie Barrineau, a field services manager for the Municipal Association. “It helps residents get to know their elected officials when the municipality includes a portrait photo and profile — covering the kinds of organizations you’re involved in, your areas of focus as a councilmember, and background information.”

Social media 
Some social media accounts of city and town governments will periodically post profiles of their councilmembers to introduce them to residents, which can include written responses to a slate of questions or video of the councilmember, alongside contact information. 

Elected officials sometimes create their own social media accounts in their official capacity to serve as an information channel. They should take care to remain as civil in the online sphere as they are everywhere else, and avoid attacking fellow elected officials or others. Angry residents may try to draw them into extended debates on social media. While social media responsiveness can be useful, officials should avoid lengthy and unproductive exchanges, and invite constituents to communicate in person or off social media when appropriate. 

By encouraging others on social media to express their opinions on public issues, officials are likely creating a public forum subject to the First Amendment, and should refrain from blocking users or deleting comments based on their viewpoint. Social media activity in an official capacity may be subject to the SC Freedom of Information Act

Officials should also coordinate any communication from their personal channels with the city’s official channels and with each other. For example, a mayor that communicates regularly with the public without looping in their fellow councilmembers can lead to friction on council.  

Public comment during meetings
Public comment periods during council meetings can provide a meaningful way for residents to address the leaders of their local government, but cities and towns should use them carefully — those making public comments might behave disruptively, or the presiding officer might handle speakers inconsistently and create resentment.

Cities that choose to have public comment periods need to clearly set rules and expectations: when during the meeting the public may speak, whether speakers may comment on issues outside of the agenda, whether speakers must sign up in advance, what time limits are in place, and whether there is any discretion for council to extend speaking time. Councils will sometimes adopt rules by ordinance to authorize the presiding officer to stop public comments that either the chair or majority of council finds to be uncivil or disruptive. Councilmembers should also avoid a back-and-forth discussion with public speakers during public comment periods.

Many cities and towns now livestream their public meetings, and this opens the opportunity for those watching to enter their comments through email or chat features. 

“Increasingly, the public is expecting the ability to have input in council meetings without attending in person, so officials need to be having conversations about when and how they may move in that direction,” said Ashley Kellahan, a field services manager for the Municipal Association. “The conversations should ask what kind of equipment the city wants to buy, what online platform they want to host it on, and who on staff will be operating it. Once the process becomes consistent and useful, the audience can grow, and really make public engagement more effective.”