Hilton Head-Bluffton Chamber wants S.C. Supreme Court to decide Hoagland lawsuit

cconley@islandpacket.comFebruary 26, 2013 

Skip Hoagland

SUBMITTED PHOTO — submitted photo

The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce has asked the S.C. Supreme Court to assume jurisdiction and swiftly rule on a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed last month by longtime critic Skip Hoagland.

The chamber also wants no action taken in Beaufort County Circuit Court -- where the case is now -- while the Supreme Court decides whether to accept it.

The chamber argues that a long, drawn-out battle could harm its reputation amid "relentless public attacks and accusations of wrongdoing made by Mr. Hoagland."

"Public confidence in the chamber's honesty and integrity, as well as the willingness of persons to serve on its board, may be diminished so long as the issue remains unresolved," according to the chamber's Feb. 15 court filing.

The chamber also says a speedy ruling is necessary because the outcome of the case potentially affects numerous other nonprofits in South Carolina. The Hilton Head chamber is a 501(c)(6) nonprofit corporation.

In an affidavit, chamber CEO Bill Miles asserts the chamber is not a "public body" as defined under the state's FOIA law "and therefore does not conduct itself as a public body." He says the chamber provides members access to "certain records" in accordance with the Nonprofit Corporation Act.

"I do not know of any chamber of commerce or convention and visitor's bureau in South Carolina that considers itself subject to FOIA," he said in the affidavit.

Hoagland has launched "an aggressive campaign against the chamber" that Miles anticipates will only worsen as the lawsuit unfolds, according to the affidavit.

Hoagland asked the chamber for various records on Nov. 26, saying he was entitled to them under the FOIA. The chamber, through its attorneys, refused, saying it was not a public body and therefore not subject to the FOIA.

Hoagland said Tuesday that he's only seeking transparency from the chamber and "is not the bad guy."

His lawsuit claims the Hilton Head-Bluffton chamber is a public body because it receives accommodations tax dollars -- money paid by tourists who stay in local lodging -- from Hilton Head and Beaufort County each year. The FOIA defines a public bodies as governmental entities or "any organization corporation or agency supported in whole in part by public funds. . . ."

Hoagland argues that because the chamber is a public body, the FOIA requires it to grant him access to its books and records, as well as information on a proposed welcome center, employee salaries and other things.

Hoagland is a longtime chamber critic who has previously pushed the chamber to hand over detailed financial information, including invoices, contracts and checks. He also argues that the chamber unfairly competes with some of its members by selling ads for chamber publications.

Attorneys Robert Stepp, Roland Franklin Jr. and Bess DuRant of the Columbia firm Sowell Gray Stepp & Laffitte are representing the chamber. Stepp said Tuesday that they asked for the Supreme Court to take the case to get a quick and final answer on the FOIA question.

"There is no reason to go through a two-year process in the trial court that merely prolongs the uncertainty," he said in an email. "The sooner this question is answered the better for the chamber and all other nonprofits in S.C."

Hilton Head Island attorney Dean Bell, who is representing Hoagland, indicated he will fight the request.

"We disagree with the chamber's position because we believe that some discovery is necessary," he said. "But it will be up to the Supreme Court."

The chamber's argument that it is not a public body is based in part on a 1989 decision by an Horry County judge. The judge ruled that the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce was not a public body and therefore did not have to turn over documents to a local newspaper. The judge said that chamber was merely a contractor for the local governments that helped pay for its operations.

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