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Best Practices for Newly Elected Officials

Beginning service as a city or town councilmember can be a daunting prospect. Newly elected officials must understand their municipality, the state laws that govern how municipal government works, and even how to navigate conflict resolution with their fellow councilmembers.

Here are some best practices that can help newly elected officials as they get started: 

Get to know the municipality’s operations. 

Encourage fellow elected officials and staff to provide orientations on municipal operations and current issues. One valuable way to learn about the municipality and its operations is by reading through the ordinances passed and meeting minutes from at least the previous year.

Attend the Municipal Association’s Municipal Elected Officials Institute of Government

The MEO Institute covers everything from how meetings work to employment law, planning and zoning, goal setting, business license tax administration, ethics, intergovernmental relations, municipal courts, finance and economic development, among others. It also offers both in-person and online courses.

Understand the municipality’s form of government.

South Carolina law allows municipalities to choose their governance structure from one of three forms: the council form, the mayor-council form, and the council-manager form. Each of the three has its own regulations for the powers vested in the council, the mayor, and the administrator or manager, if any. It’s important for councilmembers to respect the roles and responsibilities of officials and staff in their form of government. 

The Municipal Association’s Forms and Powers of Municipal Government handbook explains all the differences between the three, and is available online. The MEO Institute also offers a “Forms of Municipal Government” course. 

Know how to work collaboratively.

Councilmembers need to understand that their council operates as a team, and need to develop and maintain positive working relationships with each other and with municipal staff. As they voice their positions on the issues they consider, they need to take care to avoid being disrespectful and avoid personal attacks. 

The Municipal Association, as part of its ongoing civility in local government initiative, offers a variety of resources, including a resolution that councils can adopt to promote civility, as well as a civility pledge. Learn more at about civility online. 

The Association also offers the How to Conduct Effective Meetings handbook online. It includes guidance on everything from adopting rules of procedure; how the presiding official and other councilmembers should act, make motions and handle voting; and how to manage the legal requirements of the meeting. 

Be familiar with the SC Freedom of Information Act.

The South Carolina Freedom of Information Act governs a huge number of important issues for local governments: 

  • How public bodies such as city councils give notice of their meetings 
  • How public bodies conduct their meetings, including executive sessions in some limited instances
  • How minutes of public meetings are to be compiled and maintained
  • How governments must release public information in response to FOIA requests, including deadlines and what information may be exempted

The SC Press Association offers a thorough guide to FOIA issues in its Public Official’s Guide to Compliance with the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. Find the guide online.

To help newly elected mayors and councilmembers transition into their new roles, the Municipal Association has developed an on-demand course, “The Five Basics of Effective Governing.” The course provides basic information about municipal governance that is helpful during an official’s first few months in office. Learn more online.