Racism charge marks session on Hilton Head task force report

Questions of legality and accusations of racism hijacked what was supposed to be a final report from a Hilton Head Island mayoral task force Wednesday.

Mayor Tom Peeples interrupted Ferguson during a joint meeting of the Town Council and Planning Commission, prompting Ferguson to retort "that's racist."

Ferguson, who called Peeples a "son of the Confederacy" (Peeples' ancestor fought for the Confederacy), accused the mayor of violating municipal code by creating the task force, which Ferguson asserts may only be done under resolution by Town Council.

"We have a love-hate relationship. It's always been that way," Peeples said of Ferguson, shrugging off the comment. "I've never been called a racist before. That's new. It's just nuts."

The 13-member Mayor's Task Force for the Island's Future, handpicked by Peeples in December, was making recommendations on how to make the island's economy less dependent on tourism and move forward with redevelopment when Ferguson made his comments.

A resolution brought by Ferguson before council earlier this year to sanction the task force failed, with council members saying the resolution would be an affront to Peeples.

Town code states the mayor may appoint council members to standing committees, but only Town Council may appoint committees, boards and commissions relating to affairs of municipal government.

Town manager Steve Riley disputed Ferguson's claim that the task force is illegal.

"It's an advisory report to council by a group of citizens," not an illegal body, Riley said of an earlier legal opinion provided by the town's attorney at council's request.

Task force, Planning Commission and Town Council members said Ferguson's comments detracted from the months of work and vision put into the report.

"Any citizen has the right to make a request of town government," said Councilman George Williams Jr. "I commend the task force for a lot of hard work."

The Town Council ultimately voted, with Ferguson opposed, to have Planning Commission members review the report and set a list of priorities to consider during council's annual workshop in December.

Overall, officials applauded the report, saying it will help improve the island's quality of life and economic prosperity.

Among the recommendations outlined in the report are:

Peeples took issue with the final recommendation.

"We created (tax increment financing) districts for targeted public improvements, identified sources of funding and systematically made those improvements," he said. "What did we miss?"

Task force member Mark Baker, a landscape architect, said the town needs to work more closely with the private sector to revitalize other areas of the island, such as Coligny Circle, and modify restrictive land-use rules that hinder business development.

Finding the money necessary to implement the recommendations, though, will be challenging, Peeples said.

"Property values are down, which means a lower tax base. That adds pressure on monetary issues. We do have fiscal limitations," he said. "I don't want us to oversell expectations to the public of what we can -- and can't -- do. The reality is we can't afford to do very many (of these projects) all at once."