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Promoting Transparency Through Technology

Whether it is livestreaming public meetings or populating websites with easy-to-access information, technology has opened up myriad possibilities for making the business of government more transparent.

Cities and towns of every size have used technological tools to help residents have a better understanding of council actions and more insight into the workings of their government. 

The Town of Batesburg-Leesville, for example, keeps its website up-to-date with the municipality’s work, offering a full view of its spending decisions and finances — something Town Manager Ted Luckadoo said is key to keeping residents informed.

“It’s important because we are using their tax dollars, their money for water and sewer services, their sanitation money and business license money from our business owners. They deserve the right to know how we are using their money,” Luckadoo said. “We have tried to label our website with very easily identifiable tabs so anyone can find the information quickly. If you’re interested in meeting information, you can find the agendas, approved minutes and a link to the video of that meeting very quickly.”

Batesburg-Leesville uses social media to advertise events and push out information quickly, but relies on its website for items like financial reports and upcoming and previous meeting information. The information is archived back to 2014 when the website was upgraded.

Luckadoo said residents have acknowledged the town does a good job offering accessible information.

“There have been many times where people come into the office and want to know how hospitality tax is being spent or some other funds. We take the time to show them how this information can be found on the website,” he said. “Once shown, they almost always have been surprised at how  easy it is to see where the money is going, and have been appreciative of the ability to quickly look that up moving forward.”

He said it’s important for towns to offer information to all residents, regardless of their level of interest.

“We have to acknowledge that there is a lot of apathy that exists among many citizens and they simply don’t wish to follow in detail what their local government entity is doing. However, there are citizens that care deeply about what we are doing, and for those, it is easier to be overly transparent and be proactive at putting all the information we can out there,” Luckadoo said.

He added that for those who want to express distrust or criticism can have their distrust reduced a little with a demonstration of transparency.

“We have citizens who may not like what we’re doing at times, but they trust that we are being transparent,” he said.

Like an increasing number of municipalities in South Carolina, the Town of Sullivan’s Island gives its residents a way to watch their council at work, even when they can’t come to the meetings in person. The town livestreams its meetings so residents can follow the actions of council as decisions are made. 

Sullivan's Island town council meeting
Online video of Sullivan's Island Town Council meetings features both a running shot of council chambers as well as the agenda. Photo: Town of Sullivan's Island.

“In a representative democracy, it is essential for citizens to voice their thoughts to elected officials,” said Town Administrator Andy Benke.  "Government should provide feedback to its constituents. For many years the council and staff have struggled to increase resident participation in the process of governing the town. Likewise, when a decision was made by council it seemed that the information took some time to filter out to the community. Residents were often enthusiastic about the process and the outcome of local government decisions, but attendance at meetings was generally poor.”

The council and staff set a goal to inform residents of the council’s work and try to stimulate an “appetite to participate, hopefully in person, in the government process of making decisions for the community,” he said.

Livestreaming meetings is a plus for those who want to follow the town’s actions, but may be too busy with work and family schedules to attend in person. Livestreaming meetings gained even more popularity when the COVID-19 pandemic upended life, and gave the work of government a viable way to keep going at a time when the pandemic seemed to disrupt everything.

“Following meetings online allowed residents the ability to maintain an awareness of decisions made by the town and enjoy the comfort of knowing government continued to function,” Benke said.

He added that there is little staff time involved with livestreaming or recording a meeting, while the town continues to identify the latest technology, equipment and storage options for the process.

“Most residents have spoken very positively about the ability to watch council meetings in real time. Others have requested the ability to dialogue with council in a live format, but staff has yet to identify adequate technology for that process,” he said.

But he has no doubt that livestreaming is a positive thing for the Charleston County beach town, likening it to the way that C-SPAN makes the work of the United States Congress more accessible.

“It opens a virtual door at town hall for those who might not be able to attend a meeting and hopefully the process stimulates their interest in local government,” he said.

Another part of keeping residents informed is providing current information about the laws of a municipality.

For Briarcliffe Acres, an oceanside town nestled between Myrtle and North Myrtle Beach, the process of cataloguing new laws and publishing those online is handled by Municode. The national service digitally publishes the municipal codes of more than 100 cities and towns in South Carolina, giving residents the chance to easily see the town’s laws.

Town Clerk Jennifer Newbold said Briarcliffe Acres codified its ordinances in 2010 into Municode. As the town passes ordinances, Newbold sends them to Municode and they are available to access immediately.

“It’s important to have that transparency, especially with the hustle and bustle, the building that’s gone crazy. We are a unique town. We have no businesses, only single-family, one-dwelling-per-lot residences. We have no hotels. We have a maximum of two stories and 35-foot height requirements,” she said. “With all the new building and change in codes, it’s important for anyone — contractors, architects, anyone — to have that information up front.”

Briarcliff Acres screenshot
Briarcliffe Acres is one of many municipalities to post new and codified ordinances on its website. Photo: Town of Briarcliffe Acres.

Along with building regulations, the town’s codes cover everything from emergency declaration procedures for hurricanes to tree ordinances.

Once an ordinance is adopted, she emails a word document to Municode and the new or updated laws are posted online. A link is available on the town’s website.

Her advice for cities and towns looking to make their municipal code available online: “Visit our website and look how easy it is — all you do is click on the link. And you can send links to people, email to people, print. You can copy and paste and save and index. For someone who doesn’t have a lot of time, it’s a valuable time-saving tool.”

And having the information available to the public quickly and easily helps in another way. “It means people can’t say, ‘I didn’t know.’”