A group of Hilton Head Island residents formed 22 years ago as an apolitical association to discuss issues and formulate a plan for the town's future mostly keeps a low profile.
But the Greater Island Council of Hilton Head Island and Bluffton still gets the ear of high-profile public figures, as was the case last week when members traveled to Columbia to meet with Gov. Nikki Haley.
Most outside of local government -- and even some within -- seem not to know who's on the Greater Island Council or what it does, and even some of its members wish it would step out of the shadows.
"I really can't defend (the group's lack of transparency)," said member and Hilton Head Town Councilman Bill Harkins. "Anything that's been discussed can stand the test of daylight and is always raising the rhetorical question of, 'How we can help make this community a better place?' I don't think there is any direct intent for this to be a secret organization at all.
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"But I also see no reason not to be more open."
The Greater Island Council is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of community leaders with a goal to "improve the quality of life for all citizens of Hilton Head." The group of influential islanders has worked quietly with state legislators and administrators, and its reputation earned it face time with Haley last week.
Members include elected and appointed public officials. In addition to Harkins, members include Hilton Head town manager Steve Riley, Hilton Head Fire Chief Lavarn Lucas and Beaufort County Councilman Stu Rodman, according to Riley.
They meet privately with town, county and state officials. They study public issues and sometimes issue reports. They fund public efforts. They have committees to address public safety, education, transportation, recreation, workforce development, government policy, and cultural and social diversity.
And they lobby -- a topic of debate and contention among some members.They meet monthly in private. Membership is by invitation only and limited to 100 residents from Hilton Head and the greater Bluffton area.
The group is full.
Harkins' sentiments notwithstanding, many members are adamant their work and existence are no secret, although they do not publicly disclose where or when they meet or who their members are.
"It's not a secret, but we also don't give out the names of members, just like most private organizations," Rodman said.
The group was not always so guarded. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, media wrote of the group's formation and projects. But recently, little has been reported about the Greater Island Council, formerly the Greater Island Committee.
"It's not a secret society, but the idea when it was created was you can accomplish a lot more below the radar," said the council's chairman, Ward Kirby.
Kirby also is the chairman of the town's Disaster Recovery Commission and sits on the board of trustees for the Heritage Classic Foundation, which runs the island's annual PGA Tour golf tournament.
"The council can bring politicians in and get down and dirty to understand what the issues are and discuss solutions," Kirby said.
AUDIENCE AT THE CAPITOL
The group made its annual trek to Columbia to talk with state officials Tuesday. They met with Haley, the state comptroller, newly appointed heads of the departments of commerce and tourism, and representatives of the departments of transportation and education.
They also met with members of the Beaufort County Legislative Delegation: Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, and Reps. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head; Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton; and Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort.
"With Gov. Haley, we discussed the Heritage and revision of the formula for funding Beaufort County schools, tort-reform legislation and cutting the state budget," said Bruce Fairchild, who has organized the group's annual Statehouse trip for the past several years.
"On the Heritage, we spoke with S.C. Parks, Recreation & Tourism director Duane Parrish and state commerce secretary Bobby Hitt. They gave us an overview of their efforts."
They discussed a proposed port in Jasper County, revising the funding formula for Beaufort County public schools and Ridgeland's traffic cameras on Interstate 95 with the county's legislative delegation.
"It was purely informational," Rodman said of the meetings. "It's not really any different from private citizens meeting with officials. It was a chance to ask questions of those folks in Columbia."
Davis said he looks forward to meeting with the group, but it has no more appeal or influence than any other civic group.
"It's a group of intelligent, energetic, civic-minded people," he said. "It's a way for me to interact with people who are very intelligent and very engaged."
In October, the group spent $500 for a one-day workshop with town staff, Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce officials, bike-shop owners and cyclists to pursue Hilton Head's certification as a Bicycle Friendly Community from the League of American Bicyclists.
In previous years, the group has supported various referendums and tax proposals.
The council is registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)(4) corporation, which allows members to lobby for legislation and engage in some political activities, while still maintaining tax-exempt status.
The group was reprimanded by the State Ethics Commission in 2002 for filing incomplete and inaccurate information about financing for a $3,000 advertising campaign supporting Hilton Head's tax increment financing district. It acknowledged the violation and agreed to pay $400 to cover the investigation's cost, according to Island Packet reports.
Fairchild, though, says the Greater Island Council is not a lobbying group.
"We have dues we charge our members. None of this is used for lobbying. ... Not a penny is spent on lobbying," he said.
The group does not meet the state's definition of a lobbyist and is not required to file a disclosure report with the state. But it has paid for advertisements, written letters and shown support for public measures.
How much the group collects and spends is unclear. Its 990 financial disclosure form, required to be filed every year with the IRS, was not available. Federal law requires nonprofit groups to make their three most recent annual returns available to the public.
Kirby said the information was not handed over from a former council administrator when a new administrator came aboard in September, but it was filed with the IRS. Obtaining the information from the IRS could take several weeks, according to an IRS media relations official.
If the group was formed to "improve the quality of life for all citizens of Hilton Head," to meet with public officials and discuss issues concerning the island, why does it do so in private?
"We can be more effective this way. We're not looking for publicity," Fairchild said.
Town manager Riley puts it differently:
"I think it's a well-meaning group of people who are trying to help the promotion of Hilton Head. Nothing they do has to come through a public process. It's not much different than a Rotary Club. It's more a think tank to help policy-makers. They are trying to bring issues forward, but not solutions. It's more a clearinghouse of information and ideas."
But Councilman Harkins wonders, why not let the public receive the same access to the council's deliberations that help form policy?
"I've benefited from in-depth presentation from community leaders on issues facing their organization, such as the county school system and its strengths and weaknesses. But there's nothing special about me. I'm sure other people in the community, who are not members, would benefit as well," he said.