Just days before the three candidates running for two seats on the Bluffton Town Council are set to square off in a League of Women Voters-hosted forum, one of those candidates is crying foul after an alleged missed campaign opportunity.
Challenger Ted Huffman, who has previously served on the council, said Monday that he was unfairly left out during addresses to the public gathered at an Historic Bluffton Arts and Seafood Festival event Sunday.
Huffman said when he arrived at the festival’s Oyster Fest at around 7 p.m., he was told be fellow attendees that the men he is facing in November’s election — incumbent Councilmen Fred Hamilton and Larry Toomer — had stepped to the microphone earlier in the night to introduce themselves to the crowd and rally support.
“I’ve got no problem with them being recognized as elected officials, but if they are given the opportunity to campaign we should all have the opportunity,” he said.
Huffman, who was recently endorsed by the Greater Bluffton Republican Club, said he would have liked to have been notified in advance that council members would be given a chance to speak publicly.
“Nothing was planned to exclude him in any kind of way,” Toomer said of Huffman. “If Ted were there (when Toomer had the microphone), I would have called him up and said, ‘Throw in a word, let the people see ya’.’”
After introducing Collins Doughtie, this year’s festival boat parade admiral of the fleet and writer of a weekly column for The Island Packet, Toomer said, “I took the mic and told the crowd I’m running for reelection,”
He said he continued briefly, telling the crowd, “I’ve got a lot of good things going on and asking folks to vote for me.”
Toomer said he invited Hamilton to join him.
Hamilton acknowledged that he introduced himself and “told the people that I’m running (for re-election) and I want their support.”
But he said his brief introduction was not especially political nor was it unethical.
“This is an election cycle and any opportunity to engage with the community is something I embrace and I’m open to,” he said.
Toomer agreed, saying, “We didn’t do anything wrong.”
Hamilton said he would have “no problem at all” asking for community support at future events if given the opportunity.
“The only time I would not ask the community for support would be at a council meeting,” he said.
Festival organizer Mary O’Neill said the event has a history of encouraging sitting elected officials — not challengers, even if they’ve served on council in the past — to speak at events.
“Whichever (town official) shows up, we invite them up” to the microphone to introduce themselves, she said Monday. The inclusion of town officials “adds to our festival.”
When town leaders speak at festival events “it’s an informal thing,” she said. And while these opportunities to address the crowd are not intended to encourage campaign stump speeches, “obviously sometimes people say things off the cuff.”
Huffman said because the festival is partially funded through town accommodations tax revenue, organizers “ought to know better” than to allow for the possibility of anything that could be construed as giving an unfair advantage to incumbent candidates.
Despite his displeasure, he said he doesn’t currently have plans to file any sort of official ethics complaint against Hamilton or Toomer.
But, Huffman said a decision to ask for support from “a captive audience” at an event like the festival “is a judgment call on their part, and they failed to make the right call.”
“You schmooze with the crowd, that’s normal,” he said. “But if some candidates have a platform others don’t, that’s when things start to stink a little bit.”
Huffman said he plans to raise the issue at a public candidate forum set for 7 p.m. Thursday at Town Hall, 20 Bridge Street.
The Bluffton Town Council election will be held Nov. 7
The League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Area will host a Bluffton Town Council candidate forum 7 p.m. Thursday at Town Hall, 20 Bridge Street. The Bluffton Town Council election will be held Nov. 7.