Departing island mayor looks for 'consensus building' successor

For the past 15 years, Mayor Tom Peeples has put his stamp on the Town of Hilton Head Island -- from parks to bridges to managed growth to Honey Horn.

Whether he will put his stamp on the race to succeed him remains to be seen.

Peeples announced earlier this year he would not seek re-election, and the lack of an incumbent has lured seven candidates to try to replace him in the Nov. 2 nonpartisan election.

The candidates are Jim Collett, former chairman of the town's Board of Zoning Appeals; Tom Crews, architect and town Planning Commission member; Ward 1 Councilman Bill Ferguson; Ward 3 Councilman Drew Laughlin; Ward 4 Councilman John Safay; Ed McCullough, former TV host at local independent station WHHI; and Dave Myers, part owner of Kigre Inc.

Peeples said three of the seven candidates -- he would not name them -- have consulted him over the years about running for mayor, should he choose not to seek re-election. None, however, has asked for his endorsement.

"I most likely will make an endorsement, if asked, but I'm not ready to do that yet," Peeples said Monday. "I still need to listen to all of the views being put out by the candidates before making a determination. Generally speaking, I'm looking for a balanced approach. I think it is really important we try to elect a consensus builder."

Some town observers agreed.

"Changes in the economy, both locally and national, resulting in declines in tourism and real estate values are prompting us to reevaluate how we earn our living," said WHHI TV host Jane Jude during a September mayoral debate at Hilton Head Island High School. "The mayor and Town Council, which would have as many as one to four new members, will have tough new jobs. The mayor will have to display extraordinary leadership to build consensus among county government, our municipalities and the various parts of our own community."

Peeples said he is looking for a candidate who can build consensus on tough issues, such as island-wide recycling and extension of the Hilton Head Island Airport runway.

"Sometimes it takes longer to do it right than to jam it down somebody's throat," he said. "We need someone who listens to the minority view -- someone who gets the full value of their input -- and tries their best to find middle ground and still move the ball forward."

Peeples said the next mayor also needs to get away from the island's history of division among young working families, businesses and retirees.

When it comes to economic development, Peeples said the next mayor should be willing to ease land-use rules to attract business, while respecting the natural beauty and resources that make the island a desirable place to visit and live.

Voters are not looking for "radical change," Peeples said, but a balance between economic renewal and protection of the island's most valuable assets.

"We've got several (candidates) that can consensus-build. We've got a lot of good candidates," he said. "I don't see a front-runner. I don't want to handicap any race."