Chamber can put end to lawsuit over records

info@islandpacket.comMay 9, 2013 

The state Supreme Court's refusal to take up whether the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce must follow the state's open records law had to be unwelcome news for the chamber.

The chamber had asked the state's high court to shorten the legal process and spare it a prolonged, potentially harmful, legal battle in circuit court, where a lawsuit has been filed by island businessman Skip Hoagland.

But the chamber can accomplish that by turning over the documents Hoagland has requested. Its refusal to do so prompted the lawsuit.

Hoagland has asked for financial and personnel records, saying the chamber is a public body. The chamber says no, describing itself as a vendor providing specific services.

The lawsuit provides Hoagland a venue for getting at that question -- and the information he seeks. We might still see the Supreme Court weigh in if either party appeals lower court decisions.

Whether the chamber is subject to the state's Freedom of Information Act is a question that needs to be answered. Many nonprofit groups, including the chamber, operate under the assumption they are exempt from the state's open records law even when they receive public money.

The chamber points out that it accounts every year for how it spends accommodations tax money. Its federal tax filings and annual reports also are available. Hoagland is seeking detailed financial records, including invoices, contracts and checks.

According to the chamber's 2012 annual report, posted on its website, 51 percent of its $5.35 million in revenue for fiscal year 2011-2012 came from the state's matching grant program and accommodations tax grants from the Town of Hilton Head Island, Bluffton and Beaufort County. Forty-seven percent came from membership dues and programs and Visitor and Convention Bureau private funding. The remaining 2 percent is listed as "building."

Forty-seven percent of $5.33 million in spending was for marketing and 36 percent for salaries, payroll, taxes and benefits. Seventeen percent went to operations, building and membership programs.

The discovery process in Hoagland's lawsuit almost certainly is going to result in his getting information from the chamber. Chamber officials can remove the cloud hanging over the organization for its own benefit and for the benefit of the community in which it plays a vital role.

"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," the chamber's Feb. 15 court filing states.

That's true. The longer this legal battle over records drags out, the more damage that could be done to the chamber's reputation. Chamber officials have the power to end it.

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