South Carolina municipalities have the authority to establish boards ranging from a municipal election commission to planning and zoning boards or commissions of public works. Those that serve as part of these bodies are responsible for providing reliable and legally sound government services and regulations. In the case of municipal election commissions, they carry responsibility for administering free and fair elections.
For these reasons, city and town councils must make certain that they select appointees who can cultivate trust and credibility in their service.
Here are some ways that municipalities can prepare board, committee and commission members for service:
Adopt codes of conduct and “removal for cause” in enabling ordinances
A code of conduct should specify requirements for service on the board, committee or commission, including those rules established by the council, and they can also reiterate requirements of state law.
For example, SC Code Section 7-13-75 bars any municipal election commission member from participating “in political management or in a political campaign over whose election the member has jurisdiction during the member’s term of office.” This includes state and federal elections as well as local elections. These commission members are also barred from contributing to candidates or attending fundraisers for candidates in races where they have jurisdiction.
Board of zoning appeals members and planning commissioners, meanwhile, are generally not allowed to engage in ex parte communication, or communication with permit applicants outside of public meetings. This is the case when the body is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, such as when an applicant seeks a zoning variance or is making an appeal, but not when acting in a legislative capacity, such as adopting a comprehensive plan, according to a July 9, 1997, SC Attorney General opinion.
The International City/County Management Association has a Code of Ethics that focuses on equity, transparency, integrity and stewardship in local government. That code, which can provide a starting point for cities and towns looking to incorporate ethical standards into their code of conduct for board members, is available at https://icma.org/icma-code-ethics.
The enabling ordinance also needs to establish the method by which the city or town council will remove members of the board, committee or commission when those members violate the code of conduct.
Review candidates’ backgrounds
Social media has emerged as a potential source of difficulty for municipal officials. When officials make inflammatory social media statements or suggest that they may have conflicts of interest when discharging their duties, they can damage the reputation or legitimacy of their city or town.
Asking for access to a candidate’s social media accounts for a full review can help avoid surprises, and it can also help remind candidates that their social media activity will reflect on their official work. When screening candidates, be willing to ask, “Is there anything in your social media history that the council should know about?”
Background checks can also assist when evaluating candidates.
As members begin service on a board, committee or commission, make sure to explain to them the legal restrictions for their position and the applicable code of conduct. Commissioners on a municipal election commission, for example, should know that political activity involving any election touched by the city or town will lead to their removal from their positions.
Be sure also that new members understand that they are obligated to comply with the SC Ethics Reform Act, which aims to make all public servants, including employees, public officeholders and public members of bodies more accountable to their communities. A short description of the law’s provisions is available online.