Residents play role in Bluffton's success by getting involved

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Sandro Montalvo, Thaddeus Miller and Heather Clint (from left) were among about 50 people who attended a Town of Bluffton workshop March 28 to promote citizen engagement. Here, they enjoy snacks provided by the town. PHOTO BY CAROL WEIR

On a busy Tuesday evening, multiple events compete for our time and attention. But Bluffton officials weren't surprised that 50 people showed up at Town Hall on March 28 to learn how their local government works and how to become more involved.

"Do you love living here?" Bluffton's public information officer Debbie Szpanka asked the crowd gathered in the Ulmer Auditorium. After the audience responded "Yes!" Szpanka noted that Bluffton is riding a wave of regional and national popularity. Residents can play a role in the town's success through volunteerism and staying informed about local issues, she said.

Although the median age of local residents is 36, Forbes Magazine named Bluffton one of the "Best Places to Retire in 2016." The Huffington Post's travel section featured Bluffton in an article titled "Visiting Sweet South Carolina," and Garden & Gun Magazine called Bluffton "A Southern Dream Town." (June/July 2015).

Also, Bluffton is growing faster than any other municipality in the region. The current population is about 19,000 residents - a 34 percent increase since the 2010 census.

Many of these new residents want a voice in their town. Bluffton Park resident Heather Clint said she came to the workshop because she wants do her civic duty. "I think it's important," she said.

Currently, only four seats are vacant for volunteers on town boards, committees and commissions, but officials encouraged all interested residents to submit applications. Application forms are available for download on the town's website; completed applications are kept on file for a year after submission.

"People move or have to step down for personal reasons. Positions open up," deputy town manager Scott Marshall said. At press time, the town had received five new applications following the workshop.

Town Council selects new members after applicants complete an interview process. Officials noted that time commitments vary for each board, committee and commission.

Shere Colborn, who lives near Town Hall and has been on the Beautification Committee for four years, said this group meets once a month for about an hour. "Mostly, we give our opinions," she said, adding that members with professional landscaping experience handle the committee's more technical responsibilities.

Colborn said she joined the committee because she cares about how Bluffton looks.

Residents age 18 and older can volunteer to join the Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee, Affordable Housing Committee, Beautification Committee, Board of Zoning Appeals, Historic Preservation Commission, Municipal Election Commission, May River Watershed Action Plan Implementation Committee, Negotiating Committee, Planning Commission and Wall of Honor Committee, among other local and regional boards, committees and commissions.

There are also other ways to get involved. Town officials urged workshop participants to attend twice-monthly Town Council meetings and to speak during the public comment periods, and to email Town Council members about their concerns.

Residents also can attend the Citizen's Police Academy presented by the Bluffton Police Department. The 10-week course is free.

Many who attended the workshop weren't sure if they actually lived in the town limits. Szpanka handed out maps, a list of neighborhoods in Bluffton, and another list showing areas that are part of unincorporated Beaufort County.

Those disappointed to find that they live outside town limits were told they were welcome to participate in town events such as the annual May River Clean-Up, coming up on April 22.

Carol Weir of Bluffton is a career journalist and teacher.

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