Two weeks after Hilton Head mayor David Bennett issued a call for unity among Town Council members, the team mentality he encouraged seems to have quickly dissipated.
At least two council members contend the mayor hasn’t followed his own advice.
“I want to make sure that my walk matches my talk,” Bennett said at the Oct. 3 council meeting. “And I’ve been disturbed by the fact that I am the leader of the community — we are the leaders of our community — and I’m not sure we’re displaying that unity. And I’m not looking around the room casting blame. I’m looking predominately at myself. And I really don’t want any more part of it.”
Bennett’s comments came before the council voted 4-3 to provide up to $575,000 to replace the stage lighting system at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina. Council members John McCann, Bill Harkins, Marc Grant and Tom Lennox approved the funding request; Bennett, along with council members Kim Likins and David Ames, opposed it.
The 4-3 split among the council has been more pronounced in recent weeks. Much of it has been connected to their earlier differences over how to handle the employment situation of longtime town manager Steve Riley, who announced he was no longer job hunting after the council, in a surprise move at the Oct. 3 meeting, unanimously pledged support of Riley, who has been at odds with Bennett.
The pledge of support for Riley and Bennett’s call for unity gave the appearance that council members wanted to get along with each other. But those feelings apparently didn’t last long.
In an article titled “Dollars and ‘Sense,’” which was published Monday in his monthly online constituent newsletter, Bennett was critical of the Oct. 3 vote on the arts center funding, though he didn’t single out any of the four council members who voted for it.
“Islanders, you’ve given over $10M to the ACCC, and that may make sense,” Bennett wrote. “But there has never been a financial audit. These funds are government subsidies and should be disbursed only with the highest level of examination. Yes, the ACCC’s product may be beyond magnificent. But this level of investment, without financial accountability, well, does that make sense?”
Bennett, who took office in December 2014, did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.
Contacted Wednesday, McCann, who announced in August his candidacy for mayor, said while it’s not necessary for council to vote unanimously, all council members should accept a final vote, even if he or she doesn’t agree with it, citing the arts center funding as an example.
“I was kind of upset by (Bennett’s) article (on the arts center funding),” McCann said. “I thought we had made an attempt to move forward. ... Sometimes the vote doesn’t go your way.”
Harkins, who made the motion to provide the arts center funding, said Wednesday that under former mayors, spirited debate was encouraged, but after a vote was taken, the council would move on.
“In the world of sports, when the whistle is blown the players get off the field,” he said. “When the whistle is blown (for Town Council), the mayor keeps fighting. That, to me, raises the question of sincerity.”
“That article (by Bennett) did not reflect the art of compromise,” Harkins continued. “It did not reflect the value of moving on and moving forward in addressing many issues facing the town that will require a cooperative spirit for us to achieve progress.”
Lennox said the article suggests that the council is not unified.
“But I think it’s too early to tell,” he added. “I’d give us a little more time. It certainly doesn’t seem like the mayor took the (arts center funding) decision by council as an opportunity to build a bridge. But there are a lot more issues.”
Grant, who has been considered the swing vote on council, said Wednesday he viewed the article as a means for the mayor to express his disappointment in the arts center vote — not as an indication of a lack of unity among council members.
“I think it’s getting better,” he said. “I think we’re having better conversations. Unity doesn’t mean we’re always going to agree.”
Contacted Wednesday, Ames, a Bennett supporter, said unity does not mean that “one puts a muzzle on what one believes.”
“There will be circumstances that are so critical of the governance and fiduciary responsibility of the council that additional debate is appropriate,” he said, referring to Bennett’s article published Monday. “What is important here is there is a governance issue and a fiduciary responsibility issue in his (Bennett’s) mind. And I think he was justified in highlighting that.”
Likins, the mayor pro tem and a Bennett supporter, said in a text message Wednesday she thinks the council is working to become more unified, and that differing viewpoints would ultimately lead to the best solutions.
“When council makes a split decision and I truly do not believe it has been made in a responsible and forthright manner, I feel it is incumbent upon me to speak about why I disagreed and voted differently,” she said. “I simply can’t compromise my integrity for the sake of unity.”
Likins and Harkins exchanged verbal barbs last month at a committee meeting on the arts center funding issue.
At its regular meeting Tuesday, Town Council agreed unanimously to make workforce availability and affordable housing a priority. They were not unanimous, however, in giving initial approval to a set of land-management ordinance amendments. In the 3-2 vote, with Harkins and Likins absent, McCann, Grant and Lennox approved the changes, while Bennett and Ames opposed it.
It remains to be seen if the second reading of the ordinance will spark more debate — and if the unity openly requested by the mayor will ensue once the final vote has been taken.