Politics & Government

Bluffton's first 2016 council meeting features new faces, new security, familiar controversy

While Bluffton Town Council members eventually settled into the normal business of governance, the body's first meeting of the new year got off to a quirky start.

Wednesday's meeting, which was pushed back a day to allow Mayor Lisa Sulka to attend Monday's College Football Championship, began with new security measures, an extended series of ceremonies and a controversial public comment session.

For the first time, attendees were required to go through a security checkpoint manned by Bluffton Police Department officers before entering council chambers.

Police officials announced the new measure earlier this week and said in a release that the purpose is to "provide a safe and secure place for the public."

Members of the public lined up near the Town Hall entrance to be screened for weapons.

While no one was asked to remove their shoes, the scene somewhat resembled an airport security gate.

Officers checked pockets and handbags and waved metal-detection wands around attendees' arms and legs.

Despite the newly implemented policy, the security lines moved quickly and meeting-goers appeared generally unbothered.

"If this helps in any way to keep people safe, it's worth it," Bluffton resident Lorraine Combs said.

Police Chief Joey Reynolds said the procedure "seemed to work really well."

"Everything went pretty smoothly," he said.

Once everyone was inside, the meeting began with the swearing-in of the re-elected Sulka and new councilmen Harry Lutz and Dan Wood.

The new council quickly appointed councilman Larry Toomer to serve as mayor pro tem, a position previously held by former councilman Ted Huffman.

But the celebratory vibe in council chambers quickly turned tense as public comment began and Skip Hoagland stepped to the podium to deliver his remarks.

A local businessman and outspoken critic of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce as well as local government officials, Hoagland was removed by police from last month's meeting after Sulka deemed his public comments disrespectful to elected officials and town employees.

Hoagland began his speech by referencing last month's incident.

"Free speech is mandatory," he said.

He went on to again criticize Sulka and town manager Marc Orlando, claiming Bluffton officials provided improper support to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton chamber at the expense of competing chambers, including one he tried to launch last year.

Sulka and town attorney Terry Finger interjected, asking Hoagland to abide by council rules against personal attacks.

A brief verbal sparring match ensued, but Hoagland ultimately was allowed to finish his three-minute speech.

Eventually council members and the audience settled down, thanks in large part to a surprise celebration honoring town clerk Sandra Lunceford's 25th year as a Bluffton employee.

"It's been a unique community from the day I started until now, and I just appreciate it," Lunceford said.

OTHER COUNCIL ACTION

Besides the various sideshows that dominated the first hour of Wednesday's meeting, some actual business was accomplished.

Town staff presented a plan for improving parking and streetscapes around Calhoun Street, which council will review further in the coming weeks.

Council voted unanimously to approve the sale of about 3 acres of town-owned land in Buckwalter Place to eviCore. The property will be used to enhance the campus of the health care company's national headquarters.

Follow reporter Lucas High at twitter.com/IPBG_Lucas.

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