The recently published text messages that Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett and town manager Steve Riley exchanged before and after Hurricane Matthew last fall have given the public more insight into why the mayor made the puzzling decision to remain in Orlando, Fla., rather than return to the Lowcountry and lead from emergency operations centers, as Bluffton’s and Beaufort’s mayors had done.
The insight is this: What a gift these two men gave to Hilton Head.
Riley encouraged Bennett to stay away; Bennett took Riley’s advice.
And the island, the worst-hit area in Beaufort County, was better off because of it.
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Riley ably led the resort community through its biggest challenge in decades, something he might not have been able to do had Bennett immediately returned from his family vacation.
But this does not absolve the mayor, and it does not change a single conclusion the public might have drawn about Bennett’s leadership style at that time.
A leader stays with his community, and the mayor should have known better.
He should have returned to the area.
He should not have taken the advice of someone he apparently does not respect or trust enough to keep on as town manager.
And for Bennett and his supporters to assert otherwise is to admit that Bennett’s presence is immaterial and that Bennett’s apparent opinion of Riley has been, at least in part, a misjudgment.
Why do I bring this up now, nearly a year after the storm? Why am I leaning on the knife?
The answer is simple.
Bennett has just over a year left in his term, and the legacy he appears to be building is that of a placeholder mayor.
His decision not to immediately return before the hurricane showed his ineffectiveness then, and the text messages remind us of that ineffectiveness now.
Hilton Head, which in its history has only had one mayor for more than one term, cannot afford to have a placeholder leader.
The town has a major workforce shortage, a lack of affordable housing and a heavy reliance on the two.
Also, there’s that cumbersome and not-yet-over hurricane recovery (if you haven’t thanked a town employee yet, do so).
Hilton Head needs someone who doesn’t just want to make an impact, but someone who actually makes an impact.
So far, this does not describe the current mayor.
When asked to sing Bennett’s praises, Bennett’s supporters will say that he is well-intentioned and has a big heart. They will point to his relationship with native islander communities and his desire to fix infrastructure issues that have plagued the north-end of the island for far too long.
He wants the best for this island. He wants more for its people.
We know this because he says so.
Which is a problem, his critics say: He is all talk.
When he ran for mayor in 2014, Bennett told voters that he is a good listener and a good team builder.
But word behind the scenes has it that he has been neither of these things, at least when it comes to the people he relies on to execute his ideas.
Some of his critics say that he’s an unfocused and inconsiderate bully who was unprepared for the demands of the job and whose administration has created more committees, task forces and “visioning” teams than concrete, articulable change.
He can be snide and secretive, they say. He can be tone deaf and impatient. He bites off more than he can chew to the detriment of progress. And while he might be the team captain, he has not been part of their team.
This, they say, is what gets in his way ... and, ultimately, in the island’s way.
But the worst offense, in my opinion, is his handling of Riley.
Those in Bennett’s corner will point to Riley as the source of the mayor’s stasis. Riley, they say, hampers Bennett’s ability to effect change.
Which is a very easy thing to say.
And to fix.
Riley’s fate with Bennett has apparently been in question from the start, and that it’s gone on this long is unfair to Riley, to town employees and to the island, which generally holds Riley in high regard.
A prolonged hangup like this, with its constant undercurrent of uncertainty and suspicion, does not bode well for the stability or morale of any workplace, never mind an entire town, especially one so desperately in need of consistency and true leadership.
Bennett, depending on the day, reportedly has the Town Council votes he would need to fire Riley should he wish to do so.
That he hasn’t pulled the trigger tells me he doesn’t actually want Riley gone or he doesn’t want to be the one holding the lion’s share of the blame for his departure.
Whatever the case may be, the bottom line is that the mayor has nothing to show for this either.
Except further evidence of ineffective leadership.