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Chamber critic Hoagland tossed from Bluffton council meeting + audio

Skip Hoagland, a local businessman and outspoken Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce critic, stood before the Bluffton town council Tuesday during a public comment session.

He glanced down at the prepared remarks in front of him and began speaking.

Barely a minute later, Hoagland, flanked by two town police officers -- each with a hand on his shoulders -- was unceremoniously removed from Town Hall while members of the audience applauded.

THE LEAD-UP

For several years, Hoagland has led an aggressive campaign against the chamber, both publicly and behind the scenes.

He has called for more fiscal transparency from the chamber.

He has also demanded that local governments exercise tighter control over the chamber, which receives public funds and serves as the designated marketing organization for both Bluffton and Hilton Head.

Local government and chamber officials have been targets relentless phone calls and taunting email screeds filled with accusations, threats and personal attacks.

Until recently the criticism has mainly focused on chamber and Hilton Head officials.

But the scope of that criticism expanded during the recent Bluffton municipal election to include recently re-elected mayor Lisa Sulka, town manager Marc Orlando and outgoing councilman Ted Huffman.

Hoagland sent email blasts in the run-up to the election with subject lines such as "Sulka and Huffman must be removed and not fit for office."

Huffman, who owns Bluffton BBQ in Old Town, "needs to go back to selling (barbecue) and stop trying to act like he knows what's going on," Hoagland wrote in one email.

Hoagland referred to Sulka as "young lady" in another email, and wrote the she and Huffman "are a joke and laughable at best."

Hoagland claims Bluffton officials provided improper support to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce at the expense of competing chambers, including one he attempted to launch last year.

Sulka denies any wrongdoing on behalf of herself and town staff.

Audio: Hoagland-Sulka interaction at Dec. 8, 2015, Bluffton Town Council meeting

TUESDAY'S EVENTS

Sulka began the public comment session at Tuesday's council meeting in the typical fashion, asking speakers to keep their remarks to three minutes and "not (to) make any personal attacks to council or anyone in this room."

"Try to keep (comments) to things we can do within the jurisdiction of our town, and be mindful and respectful of those who are present," she said.

Hoagland began by saying Sulka was only "re-elected by apathy" and low voter turnout.

He went on to say that town officials "need to be held accountable by the public for past wrongdoing" and called out Sulka and Orlando by name.

"Sir, you are being disrespectful," Sulka replied.

Hoagland's comments continued in the same vein for several more seconds before he was cut off.

"You're finished, you're finished," Sulka said.

Huffman stood up from his seat on the dais and said, "Somebody help me throw him out of here."

Councilman Fred Hamilton restrained Huffman before he could make a move toward Hoagland, who was standing about 20 feet away.

As police escorted Hoagland out of the room and audience members clapped, he objected and said the council was violating his right to speak freely.

"You'll hear from my attorney," he said.

AFTERMATH

Hoagland on Wednesday defended his remarks, saying, "I didn't attack anyone unfairly or use any foul language."

"I've been asked to tone it down a little bit, I feel like I've done that," he said.

Hoagland said his removal from the meeting "was like something you would imagine in a foreign country."

"It's not something I would have ever thought could happen to me in Beaufort County."

Hoagland's emails to town officials and members of the media continued Tuesday night and into Wednesday.

He said he met with police officers Wednesday and was told he was removed from the meeting because because he was "being disruptive."

State open meetings laws do "not prohibit the removal of any person who wilfully disrupts a meeting to the extent that orderly conduct of the meeting is seriously compromised."

Town officials stood by the decision to cut Hoagland's comments short and have him removed.

"He went over the line. We have rules about addressing council: you don't get personal," Huffman said Wednesday. "I had enough of him. I felt like someone needed to tell him to get the hell out of there."

Sulka said as mayor her "role is to keep civility and order in the council chambers."

"He was being disrespectful to me and that's fine. But when you start talking about our staff that's when I had enough," she said. "... He has put Bluffton in his fight against the chamber and we don't want to be a part of it."

Sulka said Hoagland is welcome to speak at future town meetings, "just as long he's respectful."

Hoagland vowed Wednesday to "come back (to town meetings) with a number of people."

"We are going to be speaking at every meeting," he promised.

Follow reporter Lucas High on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Lucas.

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