Oversight: An Often Neglected Component to Smart Government

Lessons from the Past Prove to Be Valuable Today

By Mayor Billy Keyserling

Some might wonder why they hear on the street or read in the news that Beaufort City Council discussed a particular issue and did not take action. It is a fair question for which there is a good answer: Oversight.

A Learning Experience in the Nation’s Capitol

During my 16-year career in Washington, D.C., one of my most interesting assignments was serving as a Research Associate for the Commission on the Operation of the US Senate, (aka The Culver Commission.) Our assignment was to recommend how the Senate could work more efficiently. This was the mid-1970’s when there were no personal computers; we used photocopiers later replaced by fax machines. There were no cell phones or the many other communications tools we take for granted today.

While most of my associates explored communications, scheduling, Senate organization and relationships between Senators’ offices and the Congressional Budget Office, the Library of Congress, the General Accounting Office and the Office of the Sergeant at Arms which coordinated services to Senators and their offices, my assignment was to explore and recommend how Senators could more effectively oversee the Executive Branch of Government.

Were Senators too busy making new laws and not spending enough time looking at the impact of laws they passed? How did the Senate and Administration share large bodies of information? I interviewed Senate Committee Staff and representatives from President Ford’s Office of Management and Budget.

Because money drives government programs, I used, as an example, the newly created budget process. Among my findings was that data collected by OMB was in one format while data collected by the Congressional Budget Office for the Senate was in a different format. Accordingly, budget oversight was an extraordinarily bulky and inefficient process and the Budget Committee’s assignment was nearly impossible because the respective branches of the government spoke different languages.

Accordingly, I recommended, among other things, that Senate and White House computers shift to compatible formats to enhance communication and appropriate measures required for effective oversight.

Back to Beaufort.

When the Chamber of Commerce and Visitors and Convention Bureau (VCB) parted ways and the VCB requested they, instead of the chamber, be named the Designated Marketing Organization (DMO) which receives tourism marketing dollars from the state that are directed by the city, city council did not immediately transfer the authority.

Using the oversight tool, last week we began to explore whether tourism dollars have created the desired impact. For the first time in my memory, the chamber and VCB provided hard data as to how they invest public dollars and they will soon be asked to present a budget for next year along with criteria by which they will measure success.

Before we assign the VCB as the Designated Marketing Organization, we will talk with the County Council, which also funds tourism marketing. Should we be working together with the County Council since, between us, the DMO receives around $500,000?

It is my hope that once we have put our heads and dollars together to prevent duplication and enhance transparency, if it is necessary, the city in concert with the county will decide how to proceed. Will we designate the VCB as the DMO? Will we first explore other models for investing tourism marketing dollars? Will we create a joint oversight committee to ensure taxpayer dollars create the maximum impact?

County Councilman Paul Sommerville and I have been discussing such a collaborative approach. Once the County Council’s Finance Committee hears the VCB report, as we did last week, we are likely to have a better sense of the path forward which we will then recommend to our respective councils.

In the meantime, I want to thank the Chamber of Commerce and the Visitors and Convention Bureau for a very substantive presentation which opened the window to City Council understanding what has been done in the past and a sense of what we might look for in the future.

 Oversight Responsible for Changes

Over the past two and half years, the City Council has employed a new level of oversight that I believe accounts for our better understand how each of the city’s department works and to then work with department heads to determine some new ways that helped us not only survive but beat the national budget crisis. Today, we produce a higher level of services for considerably less money because we understand and use the ever important tool of oversight.

Some Other Examples of How Oversight Works

City Council continually challenges our staff to look for better ways to manage services. Several months ago, during the drawn out discussion about short term rentals, staff learned that while the city rarely gets complaints about the condition of short term rentals, they frequently hear from tenants that landlords do not take care of long term (more than 30 days) properties.

Staff explored means for ensuring rental houses (about 47% of the residential properties in the city) are maintained and safe. One suggestion was annual inspections of every rental property in the city. After discussing the matter, council decided it was overkill and the idea was put to sleep — at least for the time being.

As another example, an item on our agenda at the Tuesday, July 19, Work Session is a discussion about whether or not the Historic District Review Board and the Design Review Board should be merged into one body. While I personally do not see this happening, this is a good question that, like many others, should be explored regardless of the conclusion. And that is what we will do.

Appropriate Questions during the Oversight Process

Is the intent of the law or ordinance being accomplished? Could departments and/or specific programs be managed more effectively or efficiently? Is the law or ordinance relevant today when it may have been in years past? Is it time to reinvent a certain approach to a challenge when the situation has changed? What might be better ways to accomplish the intended result?

Oversight in State Government

Using an example from my experience in state government, if the SC General Assembly were to oversee what I call special interest tax exemption “spending” (almost half of the state budget) they might determine that while some special exemptions did what they were supposed to at the time, they are no longer necessary and are “costing” state taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars that might otherwise be put to better use or permit across the board tax cuts to the citizens.

 See for Yourself

So before becoming alarmed that the city is making big changes when you see our agenda or read the headlines, wait and see. More importantly come to our work sessions and join in the conversation. Work sessions take place on the second, third and fourth Tuesdays at 5 p.m. in the conference room on the first floor of city hall.

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