Business

After 4-year battle, Hilton Head Chamber and critic take their fight to the SC Supreme Court

Oral arguments in a lawsuit filed by Skip Hoagland, seen in this 2016 photo, against the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce will be heard Thursday by the S.C. Supreme Court.
Oral arguments in a lawsuit filed by Skip Hoagland, seen in this 2016 photo, against the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce will be heard Thursday by the S.C. Supreme Court.

It’s a battle that’s been waged for years in court rooms and on the pages of dozens of legal filings.

After more than four years of fighting, the S.C. Supreme Court will finally hear arguments Thursday in a suit involving the Hilton Head-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and one of the organization’s staunchest critics.

Skip Hoagland, a Windmill Harbour businessman, sued the chamber in early 2013. He demanded that the chamber comply with the state’s open records law and release more documentation about it spends its money.

Because the chamber receives public funding from Hilton Head Island, Bluffton, and Beaufort County, the chamber ought to be subject to the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, Hoagland’s attorneys have argued.

“Full transparency — that’s what I stand for,” Hoagland said Wednesday afternoon.

The chamber and its lawyers have countered that the organization is not a public body and not required to follow the state’s public records statutes. Rather, chamber officials contend, the organization is acts as contractor in using public funding to attract tourists to the area as the designated marketing organization for the county and the two municipalities.

Last February, 12th Circuit Court Judge Michael Nettles, of Florence, ruled in favor of Hoagland and his company DomainsNewsMedia.com, LLC.

The chamber fought the decision. Last March, lawyers asked for — and ultimately were granted — an expedited request to bypass the Court of Appeals and take the case directly to the state’s highest court.

Taylor Smith, an attorney representing Hoagland and his firm, declined to comment Wednesday.

Calls to the chamber and the organization’s legal counsel were not returned as of Wednesday afternoon.

However, final briefs filed in June by both parties shed some light on potential arguments that may be raised at Thursday’s hearing.

Because the chamber receives millions of dollars annually in accommodations tax revenue — money collected by counties and municipalities on overnight lodging stays — the organization “falls withing the definition of a ‘public body’ for the purposes of FIOA,” according to court documents filed by Hoagland’s lawyers.

In asking that the S.C. Supreme Court overturn the lower court’s ruling, the chamber’s attorneys argue the organization has “refused to produce the documents and information (requested by Hoagland) on the grounds that the chamber is a private organization,” court records show.

The chamber’s filing also makes reference to its members having “been under attack” by Hoagland.

Hoagland, who founded a local whistleblower group called Beaufort Watchdog, has been known to send streams of emails critical of his perceived enemies and has had several contentious run-ins with officials at public meetings.

He is currently being sued for libel by Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka and for defamation by Hilton Head Island Town Councilwoman Kim Likins, who contends that Hoagland made statements to her bosses that she was unfit to serve in her job as director of the Boys & Girls Club of Hilton Head Island.

Windmill Harbour resident Skip Hoagland attempts to speak at the Hilton Head Island Town Council the evening of Jan. 19, 2016, and argues with Mayor David Bennett he should be allowed to as a resident and tax payer.

In April, Hoagland filed a $10 million against the Town of Hilton Head Island claiming the town is illegally funding Likins’ lawsuit against him.

But none of these issues have bearing on Thursday’s oral arguments before the Supreme Court in Columbia, which will focus solely on the issue of whether the chamber should be subject to public records law.

While the five-justice body could take months to render a decision, Hoagland said Wednesday he believes they will ultimately side with him.

“I’m very confident,” he said. “Its the right thing and the law is clear on this.”

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