Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett has warned the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce that, unless it is more transparent, it risks losing the $1.5 million in public money it receives every year.
In an Opinion Page piece published in The Island Packet today, Bennett calls on chamber leaders to agree to a series of financial "transparency and accountability" measures as part of a first-of-its-kind contract between the town and chamber.
If it does not, the mayor writes, the chamber could lose its designation as the island's marketing organization and the accommodations tax money that comes with it.
"And to those who are in authority at the chamber, ... please do not be presumptuous," Bennett writes.
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"Because of Hilton Head Island's veritable plethora of God-given resources and extraordinary worldwide reputation, the town has many options as to how and to whom it allocates its accommodations tax revenue."
The threat appears to put the chamber's public funding in the crosshairs should its leaders not agree to provisions in a contract that would formalize Town Council oversight of the town grants and the taxes collected on lodging the chamber receives each year.
It is the first time the mayor has explicitly threatened to divert money away from the chamber if it does not comply.
Chamber leaders said Tuesday they do not know the intent of the mayor's message.
Bennett has declined to elaborate beyond what he wrote for the newspaper .
"I'd like to give the op-ed an opportunity to percolate a bit before I add any additional dialogue to it," he wrote in an email Monday afternoon.
The threat comes as council members and chamber leaders say they are "on the cusp" of finalizing the agreement after more than three months of negotiations behind closed doors.
Bennett and council members are staying mum on the exact provisions, but they have said they want it to include:
-- The scope of the chamber's marketing work
-- A line-by-line accounting of every tax dollar allocated to and spent by the chamber
-- A review to determine if that the spending follows state accommodations-tax rules
-- And a criteria to measure the marketing efforts' effectiveness.
Chamber officials have repeatedly said they already perform those tasks -- many of which are required by state accommodations tax law. They said they "welcome" a formal contract that puts all of those measures in writing.
"We consistently, throughout the years, have not only met those requirements, we've exceeded them," chamber director Bill Miles said Tuesday. "We look forward to finalizing the contract."
The mayor's tone does not change that, he continued.
"We're all on the same team here; we're all on the same page," Miles said.
"It's our goal -- just like it's the goal of the town -- to grow the business community, to prosper so our island residents all prosper ... . I don't think (the opinion piece) changes the conversation. As we've said, the accountability portion is certainly not new to us."
Councilmen Bill Harkins and John McCann, who serve on the committee working to craft the contract, support Bennett's call.
They have said they are confident the two sides are close to a formal agreement, which could be considered publicly by Town Council late next month.
"I think it's a good letter, and his words speak for themselves," McCann said Monday. "Enough said."
ANOTHER SHOT FIRED
Bennett's letter also takes aim at but does not directly name the chamber's harshest critic -- island businessman and self-proclaimed government watchdog Skip Hoagland.
Hoagland has led an aggressive and vitriolic behind-the-scenes campaign against the chamber that has often devolved into personal attacks and threats of humiliation toward chamber and town leaders, all of it fueled by a near-constant deluge of emails and phone messages.
In his opinion piece, Bennett calls such tactics "bullying."
Although Bennett never names Hoagland, those affiliated with the chamber and council agree it is directed at him.
"Accusing others of illegal activity, threatening to ruin their lives or in the instance of town government, minimizing the time and efforts expended ... is destructive, harmful and unwelcome," Bennett writes. "In the case of the latter, time is of the essence and words are powerful, so I would ask you to not bog others down relaying, addressing and enduring your ranting."
Hoagland fired back Tuesday afternoon.
"If I'm a bully, he needs to stand up and learn how to fight like a man," he said. "I'd rather be a bully than a coward."
Hoagland believes a series of audits of chamber accounting would expose financial malfeasance by chamber administrators.
He is also locked in a lawsuit with the chamber over organization records he argues should be public but that the chamber has refused to release.
Bennett "should be thanking me for being a tough guy," Hoagland said. "He needs more guts, and he needs to stand up for what's right and he does not need to compromise in any form or fashion."
The mayor's indirect address of Hoagland's campaign effectively breaks an informal, unspoken rule that Bennett and Town Council members have adopted. They simply do not engage with Hoagland's often extreme rhetoric, Harkins and McCann said this week.
"We, informally, have said it's not productive for us to get into that fray," Harkins said. "That's not our job."
"Some of the stuff Skip says makes sense, but it's buried in so much other stuff," McCann said. "It's a shame. He's been so hard-headed with the chamber people and some on Town Council. Sometimes you have a good idea, but you try to bully it through, and it's not such a good idea anymore."Related content:
- Beaufort, Hilton Head chambers of commerce want more county funding, Aug. 23, 2015
- Chamber launches once-controversial app amid contract negotiations with town, July 31, 2015
- Hilton Head leaders seek more details in chamber of commerce spending, June 20, 2015
- Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce faces tougher scrutiny, March 25, 2015
- Local chambers of commerce seek funding boost from Beaufort County, Oct. 20, 2014