Winning an election is just the beginning for a public official – governing is challenging, ever-changing and can become extremely technical in a legal sense. So newly elected officials go back to school to learn what they can and can’t do, and what might land them in jail.
Since 1931, the University of North Carolina’s School of Government has been a nonpartisan, policy-neutral resource for elected officials across the state and is the largest such organization in the nation, with dozens of professors holding expertise in more than 250 government-related fields, from abuse and neglect to zoning. The School of Government furthers its mission by conducting seminars with newly-elected officials, like a recent one Asheville.
Franklin Mayor Bob Scott opened the event by telling nearly 100 elected officials from across the state why the school does what it does. “Government is complicated. Government is also, the only purpose we serve is conducting the public’s business, and the more we know about business as far as a government agency or units are concerned, the better we can serve the public.”
Scott is in his second term as Franklin’s Mayor, and has military, law enforcement and journalism training in his background. Although the event is directed at the newly elected, there were also plenty of veterans and administrators in attendance, like Sylva’s Town Manager Paige Dowling. “Most managers come with their elected officials to hear the training, especially its helpful for newly elected officials, when you can advise them, tell them how the town does certain things that instructors are going over.”
Sylva’s mayor Lynda Sossamon, now in her second term, was with Dowling, as was the rest of her board. “It helps because we had four members of our board here today, and they know some of the things that we should or shouldn’t do, or how we should conduct business, and I think that definitely helps the residents of Sylva.”
Professors at the School of Government fielded over 12,000 calls and emails last year from elected officials, private citizens and journalists, so it’s safe to say they’re at the forefront of emerging issues in government – like social media management. They also monitor developments in several longstanding fields of study that are most likely to trip up even seasoned politicians, like open meetings, public records, and budgeting. Newly elected Canton Alderman James Markey said he was most interested in learning about keeping the town in compliance with the law. “The amount of vagueness in the way some of these statutes are written really makes it kind of scary when you’re trying to deal with, trying to understand the legalities of things like budgeting. Whenever you’re dealing with money gets very tricky. So just making sure we’re not putting ourselves out inadvertently on the wrong side of the statutes, which sometimes are hard to understand."
Alderwoman Kristina Smith is also a new addition to the Canton board, and said she was most interested in collaboration. “One of the great things that was reinforced to me that I know the town and citizens can benefit from is a reinforcement of how we can't do this by ourselves. It is so critical that we work in collaboration with not only the citizens with the other board members. We’ve got a fabulous board this year, and it just reinforces the importance of teamwork and how we can’t divide ourselves and each other, as well as work on a county and regional level to push our region forward.”
As Smith and Markey move forward in Canton, they’ll likely call upon the School of Government again; Franklin Mayor Bob Scott says he does so about once a week. “They’re an outstanding group of people and a great asset that you can go to for help. These questions come up regularly across the state, and they’re the go-to folks.”
They’ll also likely heed the advice of Carl Stenburg, a Distinguished Professor of Public Administration and Government at the UNC School of Government, who opened the conference by telling them to write down why they ran for office, and then consult those notes after a particularly bad meeting.