Outspoken local businessman Skip Hoagland brought almost 20 supporters of his campaign against the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce to address Town Council on Tuesday afternoon.
It was Hoagland's first opportunity to address the council publicly after a column by Mayor David Bennett was published last week in The Island Packet.
Although the piece does not name Hoagland directly, he took exception to the implication that he was behaving like a "bully."
He did not get the chance to address Bennett directly, however. The mayor was absent Tuesday following a death in the family.
"I want to apologize to Mayor Bennett if I came off as a bully," Hoagland said. "I can assure you it was not my intent. I regret all the emails."
Hoagland has led an aggressive and vitriolic behind-the-scenes campaign against the chamber that has often devolved into personal attacks and threats of humiliation toward chamber and town leaders, all of it fueled by a near-constant deluge of emails and phone messages.
He is the chamber's harshest critic and has continued to push the council as it develops a first-of-its-kind contract between the town and chamber.
The contract will more closely govern how the chamber spends the more than $1.5 million in taxes and grants it receives annually as the town's designated marketing organization.
Council members discussed a draft of the contract behind closed doors Tuesday night but plan to vote publicly on the proposal later this month.
Only three of Hoagland's supporters spoke Tuesday night, but others suggested they are uncomfortable funding the chamber without stricter controls. Island businessman John Gresty did not speak but stood in the back of the room with a sign reading: "No escape: Must audit and comply to S.C. FOIA laws."
Entrepreneur Peter Buonaiuto was of those who addressed the council. His attempt last year to start a rival chamber sputtered.
"Neither the nice-guy, politically correct method I've attempted nor the aggressive methods Skip Hoagland has attempted have accomplished the noble goals of transparency we share," Buonaiuto said. "It is evident only you can achieve these objectives."
In the mayor's absence, Councilman Bill Harkins addressed the unease.
"We are, in my mind, in the final stages of arriving at a very well-documented, very well-developed contract," Harkins said. "In sum total, what will be delivered will be very transparent, and it will stand the test of scrutiny. I think it will create a comfort level that we understand is not here today."
- Hilton Head Mayor David Bennett calls out chamber of commerce, critics over contract controversy, Sept. 29, 2015
- Beaufort, Hilton Head chambers of commerce want more county funding, Aug. 23, 2015
- Chamber launches once-controversial app amid contract negotiations with town, July 31, 2015
- Hilton Head leaders seek more details in chamber of commerce spending, June 20, 2015