Officials predict low turnout in Tuesday's Ward 3 election

Expect turnout to be light and voters to focus on background and experience more than issues when heading to the ballot box Tuesday to determine who will represent Ward 3 on Hilton Head Island Town Council.

Beaufort County Councilman Steve Baer, 68; Lee Edwards, 43, president and CEO of a Hilton Head-based landscaping company; marketing representative Ryan McAvoy, 31; marketing consultant David Warren, 55; and retired money manager Peter Zych, 71, are vying for the seat vacated by Drew Laughlin, the island's new mayor. The council term expires in December 2012.

Ward 3 includes Spanish Wells, Wexford, Long Cove Club, Indigo Run, Point Comfort and Shipyard Plantation.

Subtle differences separate the candidates on key issues, such as redevelopment of aging commercial centers, extending the island airport runway and dredging private marinas.

The candidates split the most when it comes to the subject of using public money to support private ventures, particularly the Heritage golf tournament.

Baer recommended a plea to the PGA Tour to permit six $1 million sponsors, including the town, county and state, instead of a single sponsor.

Edwards said he supports discussions occurring at the state, county and local levels to fund the Heritage in the short term.

McAvoy said he's attempted to contact Google officials to persuade the software giant to sponsor the tournament.

Warren said finding a title sponsor is vital to the island economy but does not believe taxpayer money should be used to sponsor the tournament.

Zych has been adamant in his opposition to the use of public money for private purposes and opposes the idea of levying a sales tax for the tournament.

If a local issue specific to the ward will come into play, it hasn't been apparent in candidate interviews or their comments at any of three forums. Of the topics candidates have discussed, all are islandwide issues previously debated in the November general election.If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will head to a runoff March 1.

Beaufort County elections director Scott Marshall expects turnout will be low -- no more than 20 percent, about the same percentage in a 2009 special election to replace Bill Mottel, who resigned his Ward 2 seat for health reasons.

"And we'll be pleasantly surprised if we get that," Marshall said. "The challenge is candidates have to focus on a particular issue that is near and dear to voters' hearts. If they can do that, chances are better voters will go to the polls."

The seven-way general election Nov. 2 featured high voter turnout, motivated in part by contentious congressional and gubernatorial races, referendums and get-out-the-vote efforts by political parties. About half of the island's registered voters participated in the general election.

Turnout in the Nov. 16 mayoral runoff was lower than in the general election, but surprisingly strong, at 32 percent of registered voters, Marshall said.