Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett didn't turn on the town Christmas tree this year.
He wasn't there for the grand opening of the new Best Western hotel in South Forest Beach two weeks ago. And he didn't unveil the new Shelter Cove Towne Centre community park this spring.
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During his first year as mayor (December marks his one year anniversary) Bennett has learned he doesn't want the pageantry. He doesn't care for local politics. And he doesn't want to do things the way every other mayor before him has done them.
Instead, Bennett pilots the town from 50,000 feet up, largely avoiding public apperances. He says he is focusing solely on the big, overarching issues facing the aging resort island.
That style and noticeable lack of interaction with the public has earned the mayor plenty of critics. But on the heels of his freshman year -- Bennett's first ever position as an elected official -- the 49-year-old mayor, affordable housing developer and father of three wants to look past what he considers the little things.
"It's all fine for the pageantry. But frankly, most people just expect things to get done, and done right," Bennett said last week. "In the example of attending a ribbon cutting, does that stand up against spending the time solving a problem so someone isn't standing in raw sewage?" he said, referring to one of his top priority's of bringing sewer access to all town residents.
"I don't have time to be a politician ... I'm here to get things done," he said. "At the end of the day, if we're getting some good things done, people will respect that."
But quietly across the island, some local leaders fear that leaves the town without the clear central island figure that it has had in past mayors.
Former Mayor Tom Peeples, the only Hilton Head mayor to be elected to more than one term, says it's the one critique he hears most of Bennett.
"I think it's very important to the citizens to have their mayor be the face and the spokesperson of the town," Peeples said. "It's not grand standing for the mayor to be at the Christmas tree lighting or a groundbreaking. That's being the face and the voice of the town. I just think people miss that."
WHAT HE'S GOTTEN DONE
Every Hilton Head resident will have access to sanitary sewer service by 2020, Bennett declared this summer, with little in the way of funding or formal plans at the time.
Last week, the town made good on the promise, committing $3.5 million over the next five years to build sewer access in 10 neighborhoods across the middle and northern areas of the island with the Hilton Head Island Public Service District.
The move is the largest-scale public commitment to the expansion that has for 20 years garnered widespread political support, but always lacked the substantial funding needed to cross the finish line.
"That was my personal high priority," Bennett said. "I think you've got a tremendous partnership in place to terminate the need for septic tanks on this island and make the entire community a safer, cleaner place. My biggest accomplishment -- it starts and stops with sanitary sewer."
But work is far from complete.
The need for millions more in fundraising to connect middle- and low-income families to the new lines and to acquire the property easements for their installation still lie ahead. Bennett is confident the commitment finally addresses what he has called the most embarrassing situation on the island.
The plan is only the first and most tangible in a series of undertakings the mayor has planned for the island in the coming years.
In early 2016, Bennett hopes to undergo an "island-wide visioning process" to identify the future identity of the island and how it can be redeveloped, he said.
That began in smaller pieces this year with a new arts committee considering how to highlight the local arts scene, the Circle to Circle Committee studying south-end traffic and the newly formed Heritage Tourism Task Force that is determining how best to promote the entire county's historic sites.
"The good thing about this year is that we've all sharpened our focus on a limited number of key initiatives, big ticket items, that I think will bode well for the town's future," councilman Bill Harkins said. "They're the type of issues that won't get solved overnight."
Such an approach toward big picture issues might not translate to good grades on an annual report card, but it moves the town forward in a more productive way, said David Ames, one of Bennett's unofficial advisers and a member of the Circle to Circle Committee.
"We have done a good job solving tactical problems (in the past)," Ames said. "We don't have a context for making big decisions and big investments that are important to this community's future. That's where I think David as mayor is bringing issues to the surface. There's a conversation happening now that wouldn't have happened a year ago."
Some in the town disagree with Bennett's big picture priorities, though.
The mayor's push to establish a new contract between the town and Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce earned him scorn from the established inner circle of local business leaders who say the contract doesn't get at the real question of whether town dollars are being spent correctly. Despite voting against the
final contract, Bennett is now squarely in the crosshairs of the chamber's biggest critic Skip Hoagland, who has lambasted Bennett for not unilaterally dismissing the contract.
And early this spring, Bennett was on the sharp end of criticism from a small but passionate group of Sea Pines Resort residents who oppose plans for a hospitality campus of the University of South Carolina Beaufort. The group has suggested that Bennett promised to quash the project during his campaign and that he has since gone back on his words, saying the campus is a "done deal."
It's a charge Bennett denies, adding that his campaign speeches focused on the flawed process to develop the campus on Office Park Road that failed to give residents adequate say. He has said he never promised to kill the project.
Critics charge that Bennett has failed to give residents their say since winning the office.
"He has not stood up and said, 'Stop. Recognize there are problems (with this USCB campus.) Re-investigate down to the core before you make a decision,'<2009>" said Karl Engelman, a Sea Pines resident and principal opponent of the project. "He talks the talk, but does he walk the walk?"
The last 12 months have been a tremendous -- occasionally aggravating -- learning experience, Bennett said.
"I'm used to in (my) business simply making decisions and moving forward with very little delay," he said. "That is definitely not the case in government. To me, that's personally frustrating. Some of it, frankly, is ridiculous, and some of it is necessary."
For example, delays dragged out the town's negotiations with the chamber this fall and Hoagland's relentless attacks against the mayor and the chamber have worn on Bennett. The mayor also was frustrated this fall by the circuitous discussions about economic dement that area mayors have had with County Council.
Some of those situations have been incredibly tough tests of patience, Bennett admitted.
Behind the scenes, the push for speed caused considerable friction between Bennett and town staff early this year, according to the mayor's closest advisers and town staff members. In private, some staff members have said the mayor can be very demanding of their time, while Bennett's allies have suggested staff members have dragged their feet.
There is always a natural learning curve to any new partnership, though, and the staff and Bennett have adjusted to each others' habits and schedules, said long-time town manager Steve Riley. Both Bennett and Riley declined to speak publicly about the tensions.
"It's a learning curve for everybody who comes on the council," Riley said. "It's been many years since we've had a mayor who has not previously been on council, so the learning curve is even steeper. He's adjusted, and it's a team sport."
Council members have praised Bennett's work ethic through a grueling personal and professional schedule. Work often leads Bennett to travel to Indiana, where the majority of his company's projects are. He is highly protective of time with his family, with two daughters attending college and his 11-year-old son still at home, and is the only island mayor to still have young children when elected.
Bennett said he now spends about 90 percent of his time on Hilton Head Island. He has developed a habit of working with town staff over email and conferring with other council members on the phone or in person to help juggle all three of his roles.
"We're gotten to learn very quickly what communication vehicles work well," said Harkins, the council's mayor pro tem and usual substitute when the mayor's schedule keeps him from attending a local event. "The mayor has full access to us or we have full access to him, whether it's a phone call, text, email or a sit-down meeting ... Each of us have come from situations where we've run large and complex organizations, and I think we're quite at home adjusting to the vagaries and personalities of each of us."
While the mayor's private work schedule often limits him from making public appearances, he has been able to squeeze some events in this fall, such as the Special Olympics of North America National Tennis Championships, several Habitat for Humanity work days and the grand opening of the Popeyes restaurant.
Supposedly a part-time job, being a mayor is often a full-time commitment, said both Peeples and former Mayor Drew Laughlin, whom Bennett defeated in a runoff election last year.
Laughlin said he was surprised by the workload when he was elected, even after
15 years of local government experience before winning the seat in 2010.
Peeples was known for working in Town Hall as early as 4:30 a.m. during the week before turning toward his construction company's projects during the day.
"I don't think you really know (the workload) until you get there," Peeples said.
The learning experience will continue through
Bennett's sophomore effort as he adjusts to managing his schedules -- an issue he's conscious of every day, he said.
"He found out it was a lot fuller calendar than he ever expected," said Tom Gardo, who helped Bennett campaign last year and remains one of his closest advisers. "I think that was difficult for him at first, but I've seen him manage his time a lot better, and I'm really impressed at how I've seen him be able to pull the (town) council together on issues he's found important."
Laughlin said he became more accessible to people outside his inner circle as he has advanced through his term as mayor.
"You might not fully appreciate what all the organizations and people do independently that make this community what it is at first," Laughlin said. "It's a tough job ... he's my mayor, too, so I want him to succeed in terms of the things he thinks are important for the community."
In January, Bennett will turn his sights toward the major goals he only began this year: Planning for a new island arts venue, paving dirt roads, addressing Mitchelville, building affordable housing and creating an island-wide visioning plan.
He may also ask the council to reconsider its recently approved contract with the chamber, saying it doesn't go far enough in revealing how the chamber spends the more than $1.5 million it receives in town accommodations tax funding each year.