The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce plans to fight a recent court ruling requiring it to release documents concerning its finances and other operational information.
The chamber’s lawyer, Bobby Stepp of Columbia, said he will file an appeal this week to try to overturn a Circuit Court judge’s decision that the chamber is a public body under the state’s freedom of information act. Stepp will ask the Supreme Court to bypass the Court of Appeals and take up the case to expedite it.
“I look forward to taking it to the Supreme Court, because it will be overturned,” he said.
Judge Michael Nettles ruled Feb. 22 that Domains New Media, which is owned by outspoken chamber critic Skip Hoagland of Windmill Harbour, is entitled to records it has requested from the chamber.
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Hoagland has argued that the chamber is a public body because it receives accommodations tax revenues from the towns of Hilton Head and Bluffton and from Beaufort County.
The chamber receives the revenues from overnight lodging to market the area to prospective tourists. Hoagland alleges the chamber is using the money to pay high salaries for employees and other uses that are not tourism-related.
The chamber has said the public funds it receives are accounted for separately and that the private, nonprofit organization should not be considered a public body simply because it is the local governments’ marketing organization. Stepp said requiring the chamber to be subject to FOIA would be government intrusion into a private entity.
“There is no reason for the government to open records to the public unless it is a public body,” he said.
Nettles ruled, however, that if the chamber is not subject to the freedom of information act, “the residents of the areas the chamber serves will not be able to learn how the defendant manages the expenditure of public funds.”
Hoagland said the ruling is a vindication of his efforts to open chamber records. Some of his aggressive tactics caused him to be removed from a Bluffton Town Council meeting and temporarily banned from speaking at Hilton Head Island Town Council meetings.
“Even if it goes to the Supreme Court, it has vindicated me in a lot of ways,” Hoagland said. “They cannot receive tax money and hide.”