A PROFILE OF COUNTY AND MUNICIPAL COUNCILS
IN SOUTH CAROLINA

By Jon B. Pierce, Dennis Lambries, and Michael Link

 

Increasingly the decisions that most significantly impact the quality of life of our citizens are made at the local government level. The majority of governmental services that affect the day to day lives of citizens are provided by local government; e.g. fire and police protection, emergency medical services, infrastructure (water, sewer, drainage, streets, sidewalks, etc.), education, parks and recreation, and cultural activities. Local government in South Carolina is big business. Total local government expenditures in 1994-95 were $1.737 billion while the total number of municipal and county full-time employees, excluding utility workers) exceeded 30,000 (county – 17,992 and municipal – 12,875). ("City/County Money Book," Holley Ulbrich and Ellen W. Saltzman, The South Carolina Policy Forum, Summer 1997) Those charged with providing policy leadership for these governmental enterprises are the some 1,900 county and municipal council members.

Increasingly, local governments are becoming the focal point of the intergovernmental system. As noted by Holley Ulbrich and Ellen Saltzman in the Summer 1997 The South Carolina Public Policy Forum, "as the federal government has shifted programs and responsibilities to the states, the state in turn has shifted responsibilities and granted new authority to local governments. While this process has not been as dramatic in South Carolina in South Carolina as in other states, local governments in this state are offering a greater variety of services and tapping a more diverse array or revenue sources in the 1990s than they did in earlier decades." Local governments are increasingly important to the day to day lives of the State’s citizens. Given this importance, who are these policy leaders and what issues are they concerned with? To answer these questions and as a part of its continuing effort to identify and meet the information and educational needs of county and municipal council members, the Center for Governance of the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research at the University of South Carolina conducted a survey with local government council members across the state. The first such survey was conducted in 1995.

The survey was conducted for the Center for Governance by the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research’ Survey Research Laboratory under the direction of Dr. Michael Link. Telephone interviews were conducted between November 5-22, 1997 with a random sample of county and municipal council members. A total of 435 completed interviews were conducted. The response rate for this survey was 92.8 per cent. Table 1 reflects the composition of the sample in terms of type of council (city or municipal), region of the state, population of jurisdiction, size of the council, and method of representation.

Profile of Local Government Council Members

Who are these elected policy makers and are they reflective of the general population of South Carolina? Based on this survey, almost half (46.4%) of local government council members have a college degree and another (28.9%) have some college as compared with 18.1 percent of the general state population which have a college degree and 24.1 percent with some college education (1996 Census figures). Therefore, council members tend to be much more educated than the population they represent. In terms of age, as one might expect, council members are older than the state population as a whole. Over 70 percent (71.7%) of sitting council members are 46 or older while 40.8 percent of the general population is that old. A review of Table 2 and 1994 Census figures reveal that both females and blacks are under represented on local government councils. This is particularly true for females. While 52.5 percent of the general population is female only 22.5 percent of council members are female. There is also a slight gap between the racial composition of councils (25.1% black) and the general population (28.0% black). In comparison to the results of the 1995 survey of local elected officials undertaken by the Survey Research Laboratory for the Center for Governance (results reported in The South Carolina Policy Forum, Vol. 7, No.4, 1996) the gap for both females and blacks is closing. Based on the 1995 survey 17.6 percent of council members were female and 19.6 percent were black.

Table 2 also provides an occupational profile of council members. Close to one-fourth (23.4%) of council members are retired. The other largest occupations represented are professional (15.2%), trades/blue collar (13.6%), management (10%), and education (8.9%).

Experience

Table 3 provides a snapshot of the experience levels of council members. It reflects both previous governmental experience before occupying a seat on council and the length of service on council.

In terms of years of service on council, respondents varied greatly; 22.9 percent have served one or two years, 28.4 percent three to five years, 24.2 percent six to ten years, and 24.5 percent more than ten years. Over half (51.3%) of county and municipal council members have been on council less than five years. Conversely, an almost equal number have served for six years or longer. Councils in South Carolina appear well positioned to take advantage of experience and an infusion of fresh faces and new ideas.

A significant difference in length of service exists across age groups. Council members 46 and over were much more likely to have served on council longer than those 45 or younger. A full 100 percent of those council members age 18-29 have served for less than 2 years, while 64.5 percent of those age 30-45 have served five years or less. This is consistent with the 1995 results. However, the significant gap found in 1995 between the sexes related to length of service has been closed. Blacks are slightly more likely to have served six years of longer (52.3%) than whites (47.5%) as are municipal council members (52.3%) than county council members (39.5%). This indicates that there has been more turnover in recent years at the county level.

As to governmental experience prior to being elected to council, over three-quarters (77.1%) of those interviewed said that they had not served previously in either an elected or appointed position prior to their election. County council members were twice as likely (33.6% to 17.9%) to have previously served as an elected or appointed official than municipal members. Unlike the 1995 results, there did not appear to be a difference in previous service based on population of jurisdiction. As one might expect, there is a relationship between age and previous service. Only 13.9 percent of council members 45 or younger reported previous service, whereas, 25.9 percent of those age 46-64 and 23.3 percent of those age 65 and older reported having previously served in an appointed or elected position.

Reason for Running for Office

Given the complexity of the issues and the environment in which they must function, why do persons offer themselves for council? When asked to give the reason or reasons for running for a council seat, respondents gave a variety of reasons. As Table 4 reflects, the most often cited reasons were to improve the community, recruited to run, interest in the area, had something to offer, dissatisfaction with council, and to address a particular. Of note is the increase in the number of members citing dissatisfaction with council as a reason for running from 1995 to 1997; (7.9% to 10.5%, 33 to 53).

Major Issues Facing Council

Council members were also asked to identify the major issues their council was facing. Each respondent could list up to three issues. It is clear from a review of the data displayed in Table 5 that local government councils in this state face a broad range of issues. Infrastructure (52.8%) which includes water, sewer, storm drainage, streets, bridges, and sidewalks led the list as it did in 1995 when 39.6 percent of the respondents cited it as an issue. An issue that has clearly become more problematic for councils since 1995 is growth. Some 36% of the respondents indicated that growth issues were of concern, up from 18.1 percent in 1995. Other often cited issues include economic development (24.2%), public safety and crime (16.4%), budget/taxes (14.5%), and solid waste (11.1%). County council members were more likely to cite growth issues and solid waste, while municipal members were more likely to cite infrastructure as a key issue.

Some regional differences were also noted relative to the issues. Upstate council members were most likely to cite growth as an issue (50%), while members from the Pee Dee were the least likely. Infrastructure was the most often named issue for Pee Dee council members (65.5%). Half (50%) of the Lowcountry council members also named infrastructure as a major issue as did 47.8 percent of the Midlands members.

Most Difficult Aspects of the Job

Participants were asked to identify the most difficult aspects of the job on council. As with the major issues facing council, the list is rather long. (See Table 6) The most difficult aspects of the job noted were meeting constituent needs/demands (20.0%), communicating with constituents (12.1%), and council relationships (11.2%). Almost a fifth (19.3%) responded that they had no problems or difficulties related to their council job.

Council Productivity, Leadership and Relationships

In terms of the perceived usefulness of council meetings, over two thirds (66.4%) of those interviewed felt that, in general, their council meetings were very productive. Another 30.4 percent rated their council as somewhat productive and only three percent rated their council as not too productive or not productive at all. When asked why they felt council meetings were or were not productive, those offering a positive assessment were more likely to cite the accomplishments of council or council’s ability to solve problems, followed by a sense of team work and cooperation among council members, and a high degree of public involvement in the government’s business. Those offering a more pessimistic view of council meetings noted infighting among council members and members being late or unprepared for meetings.

A review of Table 7 reveals that most respondents felt that the source of leadership on council varies depending on the issue. The chair and mayor also are a focal point for leadership.

A very high percentage (87.9%) of council members felt that members of their council worked together as a team on most issues, while 12.1 percent perceived that their council was often divided. As shown in Table 8, budget/taxes/financial issues were the most often cited cause of division. Other notable sources of division noted were growth and development issues, specific policy issues, and problems with other members. Nearly 30 percent (29.2%) that their were no issues or problems that caused division of council.

Local Government Training and Education

The number and variety of issues facing local government officials present a complex set of challenges. There are many ways to provide the information elected officials need to make informed decisions. The survey addressed both training and publications as potential sources for that information. Just over half (50.2%) of the respondents said that training should be mandatory. When asked if they would attend training programs, 59.2 percent responded that they would very likely attend training programs if offered. A very similar number, 56.4 percent, indicated that they had in fact attended training programs. When asked about their preferred format for training the vast majority of local government officials still prefer face to face presentations (71.2%). Those listing satellite programs as their preferred format increased slightly from 17.8 percent in 1995 to 20.3 percent in 1997.

Respondents were given the opportunity to identify up to three training topics they would be interested in. Over one-third (38.3%) mentioned areas of organizational design and processes. Among these topics were organizational structure, innovation and efficiencies, consensus building, and conducting meetings and executive sessions. Budget and financial matters were mentioned by another 22.1 percent of those responding. Two other topics were also frequently mentioned – dealing with the public (7.7%) and the roles and responsibilities of council members (8.9%).

Almost all (99.5%) of those participating in the survey indicated that they were "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to read special publications if they were available. When asked how often they actually read these publications, 92.5 percent responded all or some of the time. Budget and financial matters (36.5%), community and economic development (26.5%), and infrastructure (22.0%) were the main topics for publications.

In general, topics of interest for both training programs and special publications reflect the need of elected officials to have a better understanding of the major issues facing them. They reflect a desire that government should be organized to be more responsive in meeting the needs of both the community and its citizens. Finally, they also are consistent with the issues identified as sources of division on councils (Budget/taxes/financial issues and growth and development issues). Table 9 provides greater detail on local government responses to the issues of training and educational needs.

Conclusions

So, who are these policy leaders and what issues and concerns do they have? As we included in the 1996 report of the 1995 survey, they are better educated and older than the general population. Further, they are much more likely to be male and somewhat more likely to be white than the citizens they represent. Their decisions to offer for office were based largely on such altruistic reasons as a desire to improve their community and serve constituents, an interest in the community, and a sense that they had something to offer. However, a growing number of respondents did say they had been recruited to run or that they ran because of dissatisfaction with the previous council. The four most significant issues facing them and their colleagues are infrastructure, growth, economic development, and public safety and crime. Interestingly, the second most cited cause of division on council is growth and development issues. Meeting constituent needs/demands, communicating with constituents, and council relationships are the most difficult aspects of the job. They understand the need for access to additional information resources that are available through training programs and publications. These resources are essential in providing the background information needed to make informed decisions on the complex issues facing today’s local elected officials. The job of council is an increasingly complex and challenging one. But as the old adage goes, "it’s a tough job but somebody has to do it."

Jon Pierce is the Associate Director of Governmental Services at the Center for Governance at USC’s Institute for Public Service and Policy Research.

Michael Link was the Assistant Director of the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research’ Survey Research Laboratory at the University of South Carolina. He now works at the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina.

Dennis Lambries is  Assistant Director for Governmental Services of the Center for Governance at USC’s Institute for Public Service and Policy Research.

This article appeared in the South Carolina Policy Forum magazine, Spring 1998 issue.

 

 

Table 1
Composition of the Sample

Type of Council

Percent (%)

Number

County

27.6

119

Municipal

72.4

316

Region    
Upstate

17.0

74

Midlands

27.8

121

Pee Dee

23.9

104

Lowcountry

31.3

136

Population of Jurisdiction    
0 to 2,499

39.5

172

2,499 to 9,999

21.6

94

10,000 to 24,999

12.9

56

25,000 to 49,999

8.5

37

50,000 and over

17.5

76

Size of Council    
5 or Fewer Members

39.4

171

6 to 7 Members

46.5

202

8 or More Members

14.1

61

Method of Representation    
At large

48.2

209

Mixed

4.8

21

Single member districts

47.0

204

     

Use the Back and Forward arrows on your Browser to return to text and tables once table has been selected.

 

 

Table 2
Demographic Profile

Education

Percent (%)

Number

Less than High School

3.7

16

High School Diploma

21.0

90

Some College

28.9

124

College Degree

46.4

199

Age    
18 - 29

1.4

6

30 - 45

25.8

110

46 - 64

50.6

220

65 or Older

21.1

90

Sex    
Male

77.5

337

Female

22.5

98

Race    
Black

25.1

107

White

74.5

318

Other

0.4

10

Occupation    
Retired

23.4

100

Government employee

4.4

19

Professional

15.2

65

Management

10.0

43

Trades/Blue Collar

13.6

58

Business Owner

6.1

26

Education

8.9

38

Sales

4.2

18

Insurance

1.9

8

Real Estate

2.8

12

Agriculture/Forestry

2.8

12

Homemaker

1.6

7

Clerical

1.6

7

Clergy

1.4

6

Other

2.1

9

     

 

 

 

Table 3
Experience By Age

Length of Service on Council

Percent (%)

Number

1 to 2 years

22.9

99

3 to 5 years

28.4

123

6 to 10 years

24.2

105

More than 10 years

24.5

106

Previous Governmental Experience (Elected or Appointed)    
Yes

22.3

96

No

77.7

335

     

 

 

Table 4
Reason for Running for Office

Reason    
Improve community

25.1

88

Recruited to run

12.1

61

Interest in the area

10.5

53

Had to something to offer

10.5

53

Dissatisfaction with council

10.5

53

Address particular problem

9.1

46

Serve constituents

6.0

26

Better represent a particular group

5.1

22

No one else was running

3.7

16

To become involved

2.6

11

To stay active in the community

2.6

11

Personal aspirations

2.6

11

Other reasons

3.3

14

     
*Sums to more than 100% because respondents could give up to three answers.

 

 

Table 5
Major Issues Facing Council

Issue

Percent (%)

Number

Infrastructure

52.8

223

Growth issues

36.0

152

Economic development

24.2

102

Public safety and crime

16.4

69

Budget/taxes

14.5

61

Solid waste

11.1

47

Facilities

7.3

31

Education

5.2

22

Recreation

5.0

21

Housing

4.3

18

Federal and state mandates

2.4

10

Transportation/traffic

2.4

10

Service delivery

1.4

6

Other

10.2

43

     
Sums to more than 100% because respondents could give up to three answers.

 

 

 

Table 6
Most Difficult Aspects of Job on Council

Aspect

Percent (%)

Number

Meeting constituents needs/demands

20.0

86

Communicating with constituents

12.1

52

Council relationships

11.2

48

Budget/taxes/financial issues

9.8

42

Decision making

7.7

33

Job is time consuming

6.3

27

Problems with getting information

4.2

18

Dealing with specific issues

3.3

14

Zoning issues

3.3

14

Intergovernmental issues

2.3

10

Relationships with employees

1.2

5

Dealing with the media

.9

4

Other

3.7

16

No problems/difficulties

19.3

83

     
*Sums to more than 100% because respondents could give up to three answers.

 

 

 

Table 7
Source of Leadership on Council

Source

Percent (%)

Number

Chair/Mayor

24.2

103

Other members

7.8

34

Varies depending on the issue

66.6

283

     

 

 

Table 8
Issues That Cause Division on Council

Issue

Percent (%)

Number

Budget/taxes/financial issues

24.4

105

Growth and development issues

11.8

51

Specific policy issues

9.3

40

Problems with other members

8.1

35

Public safety issues

5.8

25

Different perspective/viewpoints

5.1

22

Racial divisions

4.9

21

Personnel issues

4.2

18

Urban v. rural issues

2.0

9

Other

7.4

32

No divisive issues

29.2

126

     

 

 

Table 9
Training and Educational Needs

Likelihood of Attending Training Program

Percent (%)

Number

Very

59.2

252

Somewhat

26.1

111

Preferred Format of Training    
Face-to-Face

71.2

252

Video

8.5

30

Satellite

20.3

72

How Often Read Special Publications    
All the time

41.9

179

Some of the time

50.6

216

Topics for Training    
Budget and Financial Matters

39.4

146

Dealing with the Public

13.7

51

Organizing for Effectiveness

68.2

253

Intergovernmental Relations

3.5

13

Roles & Responsibilities

15.9

59

General Management & Administration

7.0

26

Infrastructure

3.5

13

Economic/Community Development

7.0

26

Law and Public Safety

8.4

31

Ethics

6.7

25

Other

4.9

18

Topics for Publications    
Budget and Financial Matters

36.5

131

Community/Economic Development

26.5

95

Management/Administration

10.3

37

Intergovernmental Relations

15.6

56

Organizing for Effectiveness

14.2

51

Current Issues

10.6

38

Infrastructure

22.0

79

Law/Public Safety

10.9

39

Planning

6.4

23

     

*Sums to more than 100% because respondents could give up to three answers.

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