Nearly a dozen local candidate forums slated this fall on Hilton Head

An abundance of candidates and anxiety over the local economy's futurehave yielded an unprecedented number of debates and forums for those running for mayor and Hilton Head Island Town Council, according to the League of Women Voters.Historically, a handful of debates and forums has been organized, largely by the Hilton Head League of Women Voters or the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. This year, about a dozen are scheduled, organized by the League of Women Voters and the chamber, as well as business owners, industry groups and gated communities.

"I think it's wonderful," said Barbara Swift, league co-president. "A little overwhelming, but wonderful there is this much interest."

Part of the proliferation was fueled by a letter sent by councilman and mayoral candidate John Safay to the island's property owners associations asking them to host debates or forums. The league jumped aboard, providing moderators, rules and protocol, Swift said.

Safay said he sent the letter not "as a candidate, but as a citizen who is concerned that too many voting decisions are being made based on advertising slogans and 30-second sound bites."

This is the first time in 15 years island voters will elect a new mayor to fill an open seat. Seven candidates are vying to succeed Mayor Tom Peeples, who is not seeking re-election.

Some observers say residents were largely complacent during past elections, as the island's economy grew.

The recession changed that.

Residents began to worry more about their quality of life and the decisions by elected officials to counteract the decline, said Charles Strauch, owner of GA Services LLC. He is organizing a mayoral debate on business issues with the chamber, hospitality sector and a group of small-business owners.

"The community has enjoyed a pretty good ride over the last 10 to 15 years in terms of economic growth," Strauch said. "It covers up a lot of the sins going on underneath. The real challenge is when that growth rate declines."

Another issue is whether to lengthen the runway at the Hilton Head Island Airport. That will be the focus of a debate Monday organized by the Palmetto Hall and Baygall property owners associations at St. James Baptist Church.

"There are contentious issues this year, specifically the question of what to do with the airport," said Bob Richardson, president of the Palmetto Hall Plantation Property Owners Association. "The airport, if it expands, will increase the noise and frequency of noise and airport traffic. ... Who will benefit from that expansion? Our contention is it will benefit a few at the expense of residents living near the runway."

The nonpartisan general election is Nov. 2.

In addition to Safay, the following are running for mayor of Hilton Head Island: Jim Collett, former chairman of the town Board of Zoning and Appeals; Tom Crews, architect and town Planning Commission member; Ward 1 Councilman Bill Ferguson; Ward 3 Councilman Drew Laughlin; Ed McCullough, former host of a WHHI public-access television show; and Dave Myers, part owner of Kigre Inc.

Six candidates are running for three Town Council seats: Mary Amonitti, a former local TV host and marketing representative, will run against local publisher and fellow Palmetto Dunes resident Kim Likins; Bill Harkins will run for re-election against Terry Conway, a certified public accountant and former Hilton Head Plantation president; and George Williams Jr. will run for re-election against Sea Pines resident and lawyer Charles Raley.