Participating in Your Local Government – Boards and Commissions, Speaking at Meetings and More

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Today we welcome Liz Seman, Vice Chair of Greenville County Council, to explore the many ways residents can engage with local government. Learn how to identify your local representatives, use technology to stay informed, and effectively voice your concerns. From updates on council policies to insights on applying for boards and commissions, this episode demystifies local government and motivates you to participate. Councilwoman Seman is interviewed by Derek Lewis, Executive Director of Greenville First Steps.

Liz Seman Bio

Apply for a Greenville County board or commission


Katy Smith: If you’re interested in local government, which I assume you are because you’re listening to this, we want you to get more involved. There’s going to meetings and speaking to elected officials, but maybe it’s time for a higher calling, such as signing up to serve on a county appointed board or commission.

Today’s episode is your guide to do just that. I’m Katy Smith with Greater Good Greenville, and we are so pleased to be joined by Liz Seaman, who has represented District 24 on Greenville County Council since 2008 and is currently vice chair of the council. She’s also the chief of staff for President Elizabeth Davis at Furman University and an award-winning ballroom dancer.

You can see her full bio in the show notes. Liz will describe the many ways you can get involved and will give you some tips and best practices as you do so. Liz is interviewed by Derek Lewis, a member of our Greater Good Greenville Board of Directors and Executive Director of Greenville First Steps.

Derek Lewis: Liz, thanks for joining us today. Uh, we are thrilled to have you talk a little bit about county council. One of the questions we get a lot, um, in the nonprofit sector is how can people get involved with county council? How can we help members of the council understand maybe the issues affecting the nonprofit sector?

So just talk a little bit about like, what are the best ways for a citizen or a nonprofit leader to get their issues in front of council?

Liz Seman: Well, thanks so much for having me and for having this really important conversation. Citizen engagement obviously is a really big part of what we do, and I’ll start with what might seem pretty obvious, but first is to at least figure out who your elected official is. I find a lot of times when I go out and speaking engagements, when I ask, you know, do you know who your person is?

A lot of times they’ll know their federal people, and they may know who their state representatives are, but it’s rare that they know who their local representative is, whether it be on a municipal body or on county council. So starting from the very beginning, figure out who represents you and then get to know that person.

All of our contact information is on the county website, so even just an introductory email of, “Hey, Liz, you’re my representative. Just wanted to introduce myself. Thanks for your service, and I hope I get a chance to meet you sometime soon.” I always find it’s easier to have a conversation with somebody about a problem if you know them already, as opposed to the first contact you ever make with your elected officials because you have an issue that you wanna discuss with them.

That being said, you can always reach out to your elected official, even, even if you haven’t introduced yourself, if you’ve got issues or questions. The other big thing is to be present. Not everybody I know is gonna be able to come down to Council Chambers on the first and third Tuesday, but we do livestream.

Our agendas are all online, and so again, pretty easy, just even if all you’re doing is taking a look at the agenda every week and kind of scrolling through and seeing if there’s anything that interests you for one, but also especially around zoning, I feel like that’s an issue where people don’t realize there’s some change happening in their neighborhood.

They may not have seen the signs that were up, you know, announcing a public hearing and then boom, all of a sudden clear cuttings happening and they had no, no idea what was going on. And part of that, and it’s, not necessarily easy, um, it definitely takes a little bit of effort, but certainly all of that information, all of the committee information, all of our full counsel information, the agendas are all online.

You can link to every one of the items and read the support material. So that’s a really easy way. Like I said, now that it’s live stream, you know, you can be sitting in the carpool line, you could be sitting at soccer practice, you could be sitting at your office or at your kitchen table listening to it in the background.

But just sort of generally being aware of the things that are on the council’s agenda, I think are super important. And then, you know, ultimately it could lead to, “gosh, I’m really interested in zoning, or I’m really interested in how we’re spending accommodations or hospitality tax” that might motivate somebody to actually put themselves up for service on a board or commission, and then ultimately, maybe that might lead you to run in for office one day.

Derek Lewis: So let’s talk a little bit about contacting your, your council person. So you can go to the council website, you can find their address and their home address and their email address. And so just a, just an email to say, “Hey, this issue is important to me, or this issue I see is on the agenda and I wanna share a, a little bit with you.”

Do you find power in that being able to say like, “I am a constituent of yours and this is important to me as your constituent that you know this.”

Liz Seman: Yeah. Derek, you’re, you’re spot on. There’s not inherently anything wrong with cutting and pasting a form email that you’ve gotten from a group or an organization, or one of your neighbors has written something. Even if you have the cut and pasted version at the bottom, even just an introductory sentence of “this is why this issue’s important, or this is where I live in relationship to this rezoning, or this is the personal experience I’ve had with X, Y, and Z.”

Always helps set context because if there are a hot button issue, we will get lots of email and if it’s the same, just the exact same words every time. It’s hard to know, do you, do you really care or are you just forwarding an email? So always having just that little personal touch to something I think is very important.

And it doesn’t even have to be that the person lives in my district. I mean, certainly I love when people say like, you’re my constituent. But regardless, all 12 of us vote on every issue. So it doesn’t need to be just District 24, which are my constituents weighing in on things. I wanna hear from the people in Simpsonville and in the northern part of the county.

‘Cause it’s important because when it comes to all 12 of us, we all vote on zoning, we all vote on other things. It’s not just what happens in the committee, and it’s not just giving voice to something happening in your district.

Derek Lewis: So the, the next step kind of in the level of commitment is you can send an email, you can show up in person. So counsel allows individuals to provide testimony at, during a regularly scheduled council meeting?

Liz Seman: So it’s a little bit confusing. So there are a couple times that you can weigh in and physically speak. So we do public hearings on items, and those are indicated on the agenda. It could be, again, it could be a zoning thing, it could be something related to economic development, something related to how we’re spending money.

People can sign up to speak in favor or in opposition. You come about a half hour before the meeting, put your name down, the item you’re speaking on, and you have three minutes to state your case. So that’s during a regular meeting. In addition to that, we have just simply public hearings for zoning cases that are held on Mondays.

And it’s the same sort of thing you had. There’s the agenda and you can sign up to speak in favor and opposition on whatever issue or that it is maybe, and that’s more neighborhood focused a lot. And then we also have a new committee, uh, that’s led by Chris Harrison, and it’s our government and community relations or communications committee, I think is what it’s called.

That has a time on the agenda for citizens to speak on any issue. It doesn’t have to be something on the agenda. So if you’re interested in preservation, if you’re interested in transportation, if you’re interested in animal care, whatever it is, you can come and speak. Same sort of thing. You sign up and and present for three minutes.

And to me that’s a really great opportunity for citizens to let us know what’s happening throughout the county. I mean, the, when you come to speak at the public hearing, it’s important ’cause it’s like the issue that’s right in front of you. That’s, there’s still just a small amount of items that are on the agenda.

This other opportunity can be anything, and I think a lot of times we’ll actually bring us, bring to our attention something that’s going on that we can then either ask staff to do some research on or actually make it an agenda item for a future meeting or a workshop so we can kind of dig into it.

So definitely lots of opportunities for citizens to speak in person.

Derek Lewis: So the traditional meeting, you, you really need to speak about an issue that’s on the agenda. The Communication and Government Affairs Committee, you could talk about any issue that you think is important for council to know about. How does council find out about the testimony that’s provided at those meetings?

Are you all there for those meetings?

Liz Seman: Typically we are all there for those meetings. And what I like about it also is the first part of the meeting, they usually have a guest speaker. So we’ve been kind of working our way through the municipalities. So the last committee we heard from the leadership in Simpsonville and it was great. We heard a little bit about what’s happening in Simpsonville and then the back half of the meeting was all citizen comment on particular issues.

Um, and again, those meetings are all live streamed and obviously there are also minutes are also being taken. Not exactly verbatim, but, well enough that you would understand if you weren’t there, you could go back and read and you would understand what the issues were.

Derek Lewis: So, to me public comment is, is one of those most intimidating and overwhelming things people can be asked to do. And yet as an elected official, it was really one of the most impactful things that people could do for me because it really provided context. I remember when I was on the school board a student came and talked about the importance of mental health services and why the board’s investment in mental health services was going to affect her personally in her high school. Can you just maybe give an example of where that, that citizen engagement has had an impact on, on you, on an issue that the council’s facing?

Liz Seman: Sure, and you know this, it’s been a couple years since this all came to fruition, but for me, probably one of the most impactful times that we heard from multiple constituents was regarding transportation. And this was at a time when the county was really not contributing very much towards GreenLink and there was just this fabulous grassroots efforts of people from all walks of life.

And I think one of the reasons it was so impactful, ’cause it wasn’t just your normal people speaking me, it’s not just your government relations people or your hired consultants who are paid to speak really nice things about whatever issue it is. This was people from all walks of life, people who used it for pleasure, people who used it for work, people who used it to shop or get to health appointments.

And you just really got this true understanding of, “Wow, we like, this is an important investment that we need to make. It is infrastructure. It is needed for continued economic growth. It’s, it is needed for the vitality and quality of life of our citizens.” And I think it just helped council see it in a new light.

And you know, and that push helped us elevate the amount of investment the county is making. But there’s also times, I think back on, we’ve had lots of conversations around animal care. Um, that I think helped shape some of the ordinances we have on the books. The year I was running for council was when the tree ordinance was up for conversation.

And I can remember going to those meetings and they’re heated and I’ll say I know it is scary sometimes for citizens to speak. It is also a little nerve wracking as the elected official. I mean, our job is to listen and sometimes we’re gonna make decisions that are in opposition of the majority of the people in the room, and that’s hard.

But I hope the citizens know that we do do our best to study the issues and listen to all the input. And it’s input from our staff. It’s input from the committee work, it’s input from outside experts, it’s input from the citizens, all of that roll together to help us make the decisions. And, you know, it’s, it’s not always easy and sometimes we don’t get it right, but that’s, you know, part of the process and part of being human as well.

Derek Lewis: So you, you talked a little bit about kind of the next step would be willingness to serve. The county has a number of boards and commissions that cover a whole wide range of issues. Can you talk a little bit about some of the boards and commissions that exist and maybe how, how does one go about becoming appointed to a commission.

Liz Seman: Sure. Well, I’ll start by saying too, council recently just updated our boards and commissions policy. It used to be that each of the committees would hear a handful of, we sort of divvied up the all of the boards and commissions based on the work of the various committees. And I think the challenge of that was that five people were listening to a group of maybe 13 or 14 people, and then they were making a recommendation to the full council, and then we had a chance to vote on it.

We really didn’t have a chance to hear from those people. And so while I’m a big believer in the committee system, I mean, that’s how we have to get our work done. And it could be that I’m not on a particular committee, but I know a handful of people who have signed up for whatever other committee is hearing that group, and I don’t even get a chance to speak on their behalf or say to my colleagues, “gosh, please I know Derek. I think he would make a great applicant and would love for you to give him consideration.”

So we’ve changed the process, so all 12 of us will now get to hear everybody. Um, which could be harder on one hand, but I do think it is, is a way for us to be more in tune with each other, in tune with the needs of the various boards and commissions and in tune with really why people are doing it.

So what is it about your particular skillset? Something you’ve studied, something you do in your life, some experience you’ve had that matches with the focus area of a particular board or commission.

So I always counsel people, if you’re interested, get on the website, go through and read the descriptions of all the various boards and commissions. It’s, um, it’s organized very nicely on the website now by sort of advocacy areas. So if you’re interested in the environment, here are the ones that relate to that.

If you’re interested in other economic development, here are the boards and commissions that kind of speak to that. So you can kind of go through and look and read and then think about you know, what does your resume look like? What have you done? What are you interested in? What other boards have you sat on that bring to bear something on these various boards and commissions?

And that’s what I hope will come out in kind of our new process. So in addition to the application, you’ll have to a chance to engage with all the council members on on why it is you wanna serve.

Derek Lewis: How do you move from, “I’m interested in serving on the library board” to, “I’m eligible or qualified or would make a good candidate?” Like what, what kind of helps you stand out at on a board or commission?

Liz Seman: I think it’s a couple things. I mean, one, honestly, it does, some of the boards and commissions have guidelines in terms of how many from each district. So if it’s a 12 member board, it could also be that it has to be one from each district or there’s nine or a seven. We do try to not top load it with a whole bunch from one district.

So some of it is also just being savvy and looking to see who currently serves, who’s rotating off or who’s up for reappointment, what district are they from. So I think that’s part of it. Again, I think figuring out your specific skills and talents, whether that’s work or volunteer related and how that relates to the work of the board.

And I’ll tell you the other big one is, go to a meeting of that board or commission that you’re interested in. They’re all open meetings and really get a sense for what kind of topics are they talking about and what’s been on their agendas. And kind of go back and look through some minutes because if you can articulate something that you heard in the meeting that either interests you or you’re concerned about or you would approach it a different way. That makes a great talking point to council members. Uh, so I mean, do a little bit of homework, uh, and come prepared. Like I said, the baseline assumption is that you wanna give back, otherwise you wouldn’t have even offered yourself for service.

So kind of what’s that next thing?

Derek Lewis: You had mentioned that some of the boards of commissions kind of have an, have a slot for kind of each of the areas of the county. Does that mean that someone should reach out to you if they wanna serve on a board of commission and, and you have a position that’s gonna come open in your area? Or is it, is it more appropriate to kind of wait until those public meetings to kind of interact with the county council?

Liz Seman: So I would say both. I encourage people for multiple things. So if it’s something like the Chanticleer Special Purpose District is in my district, if you are interested in serving on that particular board, then yes, please reach out to me directly, um, because that process you know, happens a little bit differently than the broader boards and commissions, but in general, I always encourage people to reach out to their elected official to let them know that they’ve applied for a board or commission so that they can be aware, especially if it’s somebody I haven’t met yet.

I, I, I would much prefer you reach out ahead of time and say, “by the way, I’ve put in an application for whatever,” as opposed to the first time I see you is in the interview and I’m like, “oh man, I didn’t even know there was somebody from my district who was applying. This is great.” So just again, a little bit of more proactive effort ahead of time.

Derek Lewis: All right, so we’ve talked about boards and commissions and speaking. Um, but I know one area that, that you and I have talked a lot about is voting. Kinda talk about from an elected official’s perspective, what is the importance around that individual vote. What is the power of that?

Liz Seman: I mean, it’s everything at its, I think at its most base level. But I think the way our last several cycles I think have happened here. We’ve had a lot of action at the primary level. And if you’re not engaged in a primary election, for the most part, that is when the election is determined.

So if you don’t, If you’re waiting to vote in the general. It’s a foregone conclusion who’s gonna win the general. So the importance of paying attention to who’s up for reelection for one. ‘Cause a lot of times I think that in and of itself sometimes is not evident. But then also finding out do they have, do they have a primary opponent?

Okay, so then what is it about that primary opponent? What is it about the current incumbent that you like or dislike? And doing a little bit of homework that, I mean, it is our civic duty at its core, and voice means everything. And you know, I’ve got a colleague on council right now that won only on a handful of votes.

I’ve had former colleagues on council that have lost only really by a handful of votes. What’s disheartening is if when you see in a primary election, you know, each of our districts, you know, of the 50,000 registered voters we have, if only a thousand people or 2000 people are making the decision.

That’s a whole lot of people that didn’t have a voice in who’s representing them at the council level.

Derek Lewis: The new county square offices have opened, and that is where you can go if you need to register to vote or if you have any questions about where you should vote.

Liz Seman: That is correct. And you can also find that online too. Um, I think it might actually be off of our main page, but you can find your representative and it’ll give you everybody. And it’ll also, I think, tell you where to vote, although that’s another tricky thing. You gotta pay attention. ‘Cause those precinct voting locations tend to change depending on the time of year and which cycle we’re in.

Derek Lewis: So last question. So, uh, of all the things on your bio, we have vice chair of county council and a competitive ballroom dancer. Which is harder.

Liz Seman: Oh my gosh, that’s tough. ‘Cause the ballroom dancing is tough. I like them both. I think, you know, they’re, they’re both definitely hard and I will, and I will say, Derek, and, you know, you and I have known each other for a long time. The ballroom dancing has taught me a lot about myself personally, and even just about leadership and how I translate what I’m learning in the ballroom.

Um, learning a new step, learning to be patient with myself, learning to follow and not always be the leader. Learning to challenge myself, uh, but always have room for growth. It’s the same sort of thing that I, I hope I bring to my council perspective. I still have a lot to learn even all these years being on council, it takes a long time to figure it all out and things change and new opportunities come and new challenges come before the county.

New colleagues sit around me and you just, you have to be flexible and adaptive and sometimes you’re gonna win and sometimes you’re gonna not win. And every not win or every win is still a growing and learning opportunity and I hope I bring that in both cases.

Derek Lewis: We really appreciate you spending some time with us, Liz. Thank you very much for all you do for our community.

Liz Seman: Thanks, Derek. Appreciate it.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at This is a production of Podcast Studio X.

Image via Furman & Canva.

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