When a frustrated — and persistent — Hilton Head resident went over his allotted time to speak at a public meeting on Tuesday, the mayor and three other council members took a bold step.
They got up and walked out.
Taiwan Scott was addressing council about his ongoing fight with the town related to code enforcement issues with his restaurant at 15 Marshland Road. Residents get three minutes to speak, but Scott would not relent.
Mayor John McCann pounded his gavel several times to no avail. He called for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s deputy to remove Scott but the deputy did not immediately respond.
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Then, after conferring with Town Manager Steve Riley, McCann called for a two-minute break and left along with council members Bill Harkins, Glenn Stanford and David Ames. Scott continued talking for about another minute before sitting down.
The scene illustrates the tension that sometimes occurs between private citizens and elected officials at official meetings where the public is invited to participate in government business, and the difficult balancing act between showing patience and empathy and losing control of a meeting.
Town code says residents may speak for up to three minutes on any issue — new or old — that concerns the town. When their three minutes are up, a bell-like sound echoes throughout the council chambers.
Typically, speakers start to wrap up their messages. Sometimes they don’t.
Asked Wednesday about the exchange, McCann said he believed Scott was “showboating.”
“I’m sure (walking out) wasn’t the best option, but we didn’t know what the best option was,” McCann said. “If he signed up again, I would let him speak. But we didn’t want to make it a confrontation.”
Scott, who is a regular presence at council meetings and has spoken before them in the past, said he found McCann’s move “totally disrespectful.”
“They want to suppress the truth,” he said.
Tuesday’s scene was not the only recent dust-up between a citizen and a public board. In December 2015, frequent public critic Skip Hoagland was escorted out of a Bluffton Town Council meeting by two Bluffton police officers on order of Mayor Lisa Sulka after a verbal sparring match with town leaders.
Town leaders are meeting Wednesday to discuss how to address appearances by citizens’ time limits in future meetings, McCann said.