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ocal governments are important contributors to the day-to-day lives of the state's citizens. Indeed, for most of the citizens, it is their local elected official--mayor, council chair, or council person--who is seen on neighborhood streets, in local banks and stores, and in churches within the community.

South Carolina’s local governments, municipalities and counties, provide a wide range of services to their citizens.  They provide water and sewer services, operate libraries, provide EMS services and law enforcement, to mention but a few.   Citizens call on their local elected officials to help them with any number of problems ranging from A to Z, for example, from annexation to zoning.   On almost a daily basis they handle compliments as well as complaints.  

As the 21st century begins, the issues facing local governments are becoming more complex.  Issues are increasingly interrelated and cannot be addressed in a vacuum. For example, many local governments are concerned about growth issues and the impact that growth will have on their community. How does the desire for growth impact land use? Should there be conditions placed on development? What impact does a viable recreation program have on juvenile crime rates? While there is agreement on the need for local government to help address these issues impacting the citizens, there is disagreement often over what government should do.   And frequently, no matter what decision local officials make, they have made half of the people happy and the other half angry. 

To this must be added the increasing financial responsibility placed on local governments to continue to provide the range and level of service the citizens have come to expect.  Given the current budget challenges facing governments at all levels, it is likely that this financial demand will only increase as both federal and state funding decline.  

Given these factors, who then are these local government policy leaders and what are the issues with which they are most concerned?  Where do they come from and why did they choose to become involved?   To answer these questions, and similar others, the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research at the University of South Carolina conducts a bi-annual survey of local government council members across the state.  The survey is part of an ongoing local government research project sponsored by the Governmental Research and Service unit of the Institute. The first such survey was conducted in 1995.   

The 2001 South Carolina Elected Officials Survey was conducted by the Institute's survey research unit. The survey was conducted with a randomly selected sample of 427 municipal and county council members statewide.  Of the total, 311 (72.8%) were municipal officials and 116 (27.2%) were county officials.  The Municipal Association of South Carolina and the South Carolina Association of Counties provided telephone numbers for these officials respectively.  Telephone interviews were conducted between November 13 and December 20, 2001.  The response rate for the survey was 83%.  Table 1 describes the characteristics of those interviewed in the 2001 survey.

TABLE 1
Characteristics of the Sample - 2001

 

Percentage

No.
TYPE OF COUNCIL
County

27.2

116
Municipal 72.8 311
REGION
Upstate 17.3 74
Midlands 27.4 117
Pee Dee 23.0 98
Low Country 32.3 138
POPULATION OF JURISDICTION
0 to 2,499 44.3 189
2,499 to 9,999 22.5 96
10,000 to 24,999 10.3 44
25,000 to 49,999 7.5 32
50,000 and over 17.5 76
SIZE OF COUNCIL
5 or fewer members 43.6 186
6 to 7 members 43.3 185
8 or more members 13.1 56
METHOD OF REPRESENTATION
At large 56.5 241
Mixed 5.6 24
Single member districts 37.9 162

DEMOGRAPHIC PROFILE OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT COUNCIL MEMBERS  

To what extent do those who are elected to municipal and county councils reflect the citizens they represent?  A series of questions were asked of each local official responding to the survey in order to gain an overall demographic picture of the make-up of local government elected leadership in South Carolina.

Age  

The age distribution of municipal and county officials reflects a membership older than the rest of the state.  Statewide, over half (53.1%) of the population over 18 is between the ages of 18 and 44. Less than 20% of the local elected officials are from this age range.  This age difference can best be seen when comparing the 45 to 54 and 55 to 64 age groups.  Combined, these two categories represent just over 60% of the elected officials yet they comprise only 30.7% of the overall adult population.  This is an increase of almost 10% since the 1997 survey. In that survey, those in the 45 to 64 age group represented 53.8% of the local elected officials. 

Sex

According to the South Carolina Statistical Abstract 2001-2002, slightly more than one-half of the state’s population is female (51.4%).  Almost 80% of local elected officials are male.  This percentage has remained relatively stable since the 1997 survey was conducted.  

The percentage of women serving on municipal councils (23.2%) is almost twice as large as that for county councils (12.9%).   

W. B. Wilson, Williamsburg County Council Member, asks a question during a question and answer session at the South Carolina Association of Counties 16th Annual Mid-Year Conference. Photo and caption by Stuart Morgan.

Race  

South Carolina’s population is approximately 67% white, 30% African- American, and 3% “other.”  When compared with local elected officials, slightly less than 75% are white, 24% are African-American, and 1% other.  As with sex, these percentages have remained consistent since the 1997 survey.   

Although there is greater minority representation on county councils, the percentages of minority representation on municipal and county councils are similar (23.3% for municipalities and 29.3% for counties).

Education

Local elected officials tend to have a higher level of education than does the population as a whole.  Statewide, 23.6% of the adult population has less than a high school diploma.  Among local elected officials, less than 2% do not have a high school education.  When compared to 1997, the percentage of local elected officials in this category has been reduced by half.  Local elected officials are consistent with the rest of the state in terms of those with a high school diploma and some college education.  However, more than twice as many of the local elected officials have a college or advanced degree (45.4%) compared to the state as a whole (20.4%).

Occupation  

Local elected officials who participated in these surveys reported working in a wide range of occupations and trades.  Consistent with their educational attainment, they tend to work in professional and managerial positions, education, or own their own businesses.  Just fewer than 15% reported they worked in trades or “blue collar” occupations.  What is notable is the increase in the number of local elected officials who indicate that they are “retired.”  That number increased from under 25% in 1997 to 30.2% in 2001.  This is consistent with reported age groups of these officials.

TABLE 2
Demographic Profile -- 1997 and 2001 Elected Officials Surveys and 2000 Statewide*
(Percentage in each category)

 
1997
2001
Population
AGE
25-34
7.3
3.9 32.3
35-44
17.8
14.7 20.8
45-54
30.1
32.8 18.3
55-64
23.7
28.2 12.4
65-74
19.3
15.4 9.0
+75
1.9
5.1 7.2
SEX
Male
77.5
79.2 48.6
Female
22.5
20.6 51.4
RACE
African American
25.1
24.4 29.5
White
74.5
74.3 67.2
Other
0.4
0.6 3.3
EDUCATION
Less than high school
3.7
1.9 23.6
High school diploma
21.0
22.8 30.0
Some college
28.9
27.9 26.0
College degree
46.4
45.4 20.4
OCCUPATION  
Retired
23.4
30.2  
Government employee
4.4
7.5  
Professional
15.2
14.3  
Management
10.0
5.6  
Trades/blue collar
13.6
14.3  
Business owner
6.1
8.0  
Education
8.9
5.2  
Sales
4.2
2.8  
Insurance
1.9
2.3  
Real estate
2.8
0.7  
Agriculture/forestry
2.8
3.5  
Homemaker
1.6
1.2  
Clerical
1.6
1.4  
Clergy
1.4
2.2  
*State Education (South Carolina Statistical Abstract 2001-2002).

EXPERIENCE  

What background do these local elected officials have in government?  How long have they served in office and what prior experience do they bring to the office?  

Fewer officials reported that they had been in office for less than three years.  This number decreased from 22.9% in 1997 to 18.3% in 2001. The number of elected officials who reported that they had between three and five years experience also declined by 4% during this same period.  The greatest increase in length of service can be seen in the number of officials who have been in office for more than 10 years.  Those in this category increased from 24.5% in 1997 to 31.1% in 2001.     

Not only do these results indicate that once elected, they are remaining in office longer, local elected officials also report an increase in prior elected or appointed governmental experience.  There was a 5% increase from 1997 to 2001 (from 22.3% to 27.2%) in the percentage reporting prior governmental experience.

TABLE 3
Government Officials' Experience
(Percentage in each category)

  1997 2001
LENGTH OF SERVICE ON COUNCIL
1 to 2 years 22.9 18.3
3 to 5 years 28.4 24.4
6 to 10 years 24.2 26.2
More than 10 years 24.5 31.1
PREVIOUS GOVERNMENTAL EXPERIENCE (Elected or Appointed)
Yes 22.3 27.2
No 77.7 72.8

REASON FOR RUNNING FOR OFFICE

As has been noted, the challenges facing local government are increasing.  Citizen demands and expectations vary greatly.  Once elected to municipal or county council, significant time and energy must be devoted to the office. Given these challenges, why does an individual choose to offer for elected office?   

Consistently, local elected officials report that it is their desire to serve, to contribute to their community that motivates them to run for office.  Table 4 reflects those responses given most often.  The primary reason given for running in the 2001 study was community service followed closely by being recruited.  In 1997 the primary reason was to improve the community.  Being recruited to run was also the second most frequently given response in this year.   As can be seen in the responses in both 1997 and 2001, there is a high degree of community spirit, pride, and involvement.  Those who run for local elected office want to make a difference by actively contributing to the governance of their community.   

(The 2001 survey was conducted in the climate of the post-911 environment.  Responses given for the reason for running are reported as stated by each individual responding to the survey.  It is interesting to note that “community service” and “public service” were reported more often in 2001 than they were in 1997.)

TABLE 4
Reason for Running for Office

   1997 Percentage
Improve community 25.1
Recruited to run 12.1
Interest in the area 10.5
Had something to offer 10.5
Dissatisfaction with council 10.5
Address particular problem 9.1
Serve constituents 6.0
Better represent a particular group 5.1
No one else was running 3.7
To become involved 2.6
To stay active in the community 2.6
Personal aspirations 2.6
 
   2001 Percentage
Community service 11.7
Recruited 11.2
Make a difference/contribution 7.7
Had something to offer 5.9
Improve quality of life 4.9
Need for change 4.7
Wanted to be involved 4.4
Public service 3.7
Help represent 2.8

MAJOR ISSUES FACING COUNCIL  

While the desire to serve the community is the reason for seeking office, once elected there are a wide range of issues that must be addressed by councils.  Respondents were given the opportunity to list the top three issues they saw as needing to be addressed by their council. 

The major issues listed have changed little since 1997.  As in the earlier study, both municipal and county officials listed the same top issue areas — growth and infrastructure needs.  There appears to be a common understanding that local government must take an active role in growth for their community.  These two issues are closely related to each other. Availability of adequate infrastructure has a significant impact on a community’s ability to encourage growth and development.  The most significant change occurred with budget and tax issues moved from fifth in 1997 to the third most frequently mentioned major issue facing council in 2001, with the percentage who cited this issue more than doubling during this period. 

Given the wide range of issues, how does council determine the priority of each issue?  Respondents were asked the degree to which their council engaged in long-range planning activities.  Over 85% indicated that they engage in a long-range planning session at least once a year. (This percentage was consistent for both counties and municipalities.)  Of that number, 50.1% indicated that they have multiple planning sessions each year.  Eleven percent indicated that they never have such sessions.

TABLE 5
Major Issues Facing Council

  1997 Percentage
Infrastructure 52.8
Growth issues 36.0
Economic development 24.2
Public safety and crime 16.4
Budget/taxes 14.5
  
  2001 Percentage
Growth issues 54.0
Infrastructure 47.5
Budget/taxes 36.9
Economic development 17.1
Public safety and crime 10.2

MOST DIFFICULT ASPECTS OF THE JOB

An important question asked of elected officials is what they viewed as the most difficult aspect of their job on council.  The top responses mentioned in 1997 remained the same in 2001.  Meeting constituent needs and demands remained the most difficult aspect, being mentioned by just over 15%.  It was followed by communication and council relationships (both 8.0%).

TABLE 6
Most Difficult Aspects of Job on Council

  1997 Percentage
Meeting constituents needs/demands 20.0
Communicating with constituents 12.1
Council relationships 11.2
Budget/taxes/financial issues 9.8
Decision making 7.7
  
  2001 Percentage
Meeting constituents needs/demands 15.6
Communicating with constituents 8.0
Council relationships 8.0
Budget/financial problems 7.5
Time consuming 5.9

COUNCIL PRODUCTIVITY, LEADERSHIP, AND RELATIONSHIPS

Over 90% of both municipal and county elected officials felt that their council meetings were either very or somewhat productive.  As in 1997, two-thirds (66.9%) indicated that leadership and direction on council was determined by the issue being addressed.  The chair or mayor was viewed as the source of leadership by one-quarter of the membership. 

When asked about teamwork on council, 86.3% felt that their council worked together as a team.  Overall, just over 12.5% felt that their council was divided on most issues.  Almost twice as many county council members felt that their council was divided on most issues than were municipal council members (18.1% of county council members compared to 10.4% of municipal council members). This may in part be explained by the range of issues impacted by the greater geographic diversity evident in county governments. 

As in 1997, the greatest sources of conflict and division on councils were money, taxes, and financial issues.  This in part reflects a disagreement on the type and level of services that should be provided by local governments and how or who should pay for the services.

TABLE 7
Source of Leadership on Council

  1997 Percentage 2001 Percentage
Chair/mayor 24.2 25.7
Other members 7.8 7.4
Varies depending on the issue 66.6 66.9

TABLE 8
Top 5 Issues That Cause Division on Council

  1997 Percentage
Budget/taxes/financial issues 24.4
Growth and development issues 11.8
Specific policy issues 9.3
Problems with other members 8.1
Public safety issues 5.8
  
  2001 Percentage
Money/taxes/budget 25.9
Zoning issues 8.9
Problems among members 7.0
Personnel issues 4.7
Growth management 3.7

CONCLUSIONS

In the Institute of Government for County Officials, participants split into small groups to practice their communication skills in a class on "Effective Communications." Photo and caption by Stuart Morgan.

The focus of this profile has been on municipal and county council members throughout South Carolina.  A number of conclusions can be reached about them as a group.   

  • They are not representative of either the gender or racial make-up of the state as a whole. Women are significantly underrepresented among council members, while the percentage of minorities is slightly higher in the population than among government officials. There has been little overall change since the 1997 survey.
  • They are more highly educated than the general public.  They tend to work in professional and managerial positions. 
  • The number of members who indicate they are retired has increased between 1997 and 2001.
  • The tenure in office has increased.
  • County and municipal councils tend to be representative of older age categories than the population of the state.
  • Dealing with citizen expectations and demands remains the most difficult aspect of their job.
  • Local elected officials continue to be motivated by a desire to serve their community.
  • The issues facing local governments in South Carolina remain infrastructure, growth management, and finances.
  • While most council members view their council as a team, there is division over funding and budgeting of local government services.

Local governments in South Carolina, both municipalities and counties, face similar problems.  They remain concerned about providing for and managing growth.  They remain concerned about funding local government services.  Citizens offer their time, energy, and talents to the process of government in large part based on their desire to contribute in some meaningful way to the quality of life in their community.  The challenges will be to continue to encourage civic-minded citizens to offer their time and talents to the political process and to ensure that local government elected officials both represent and are representative of all the citizens of South Carolina.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mr. Dennis Lambries, B.A., M.A., is a Research Associate with the University of South Carolina's Institute for Public Service and Policy Research.  Mr. Lambries holds a Master of Arts in American Government and Public Policy from the University of South Carolina.  He has over 25 years experience in performance management, curriculum design, long-range, and strategic planning at the federal, state, and local level. Mr. Lambries has taught courses in public administration, public policy, and American government at the University of South Carolina.  He has designed and delivered training programs and seminars on topics which include: staffing standards, process reengineering, leadership, motivation, interpersonal communication, ethics and ethical decision making, building effective working relationships, local government planning, and the roles and responsibilities of members of boards and commissions. Mr. Lambries can be contacted at lambries@iopa.sc.edu.

Photos and captions reproduced by permission from County Focus, Vol. 14, No. 1 and the South Carolina Association of Counties. All rights reserved.


CONTACT:

Richard D. Young, Editor in Chief
Public Policy & Practice
Institute for Public Service and
Policy Research
University of South Carolina
Columbia, SC 29208
Phone: (803) 777-0453
Fax: (803) 777-4575
e-mail: young-richard@sc.edu
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