Tempers flared Tuesday night as Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett and Skip Hoagland locked horns over the outspoken town critic's right to speak during the public comment period of Town Council meetings.
A shouting match between the two ended in an abrupt, unexpected recess from the meeting that left Hoagland and more than 60 attendees speechless.
"I've had several conversations offline about this with Mr. Hoagland," Bennett said. "It's the town code. It's a privilege to speak before this council, not a right, and he has abused the rules."
After a tense discussion among council members in the hall outside their chambers, the council ultimately overruled the mayor to let Hoagland speak before the council for the first time since he was banned by Bennett last month.
But town leaders unanimously decried Hoagland's tactics in his bitter campaign against the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
Just moments after his speech, Hoagland's victory lap outside council chambers turned into another blow to his fight.
On the steps outside Town Hall, he was served a lawsuit filed by Councilwoman Kim Likins, who was awarded a restraining order against Hoagland last month.
LIFTING THE BAN
Hoagland was banned from making public comments to Town Council last month after he attacked Likins' support for the town's recent contract with the chamber of commerce.
The ban referenced the town's code that says "any citizen of the town" can make comments. Hoagland is a resident of Windmill Harbour on Jenkins Island, which is just outside town limits.
In an email last week, town attorney Brian Hulbert wrote that Hoagland would be permitted to speak if he showed proof of residency within the town -- but that didn't happen, town administrators said.
Hoagland announced last week he intended to challenge that decision, and he interjected after public comments closed Tuesday.
"Mayor Bennett, you forgot to call me for my public comment," Hoagland said. "I applied to speak. Can you please tell me why you didn't call me?"
"I am a public citizen, and I have the right to speak," he continued.
Bennett tried to cut him off, calling him "out of line," and shouting ensued.
Two loud raps of the gavel silenced Hoagland and the audience as Bennett called for an emergency five-minute recess. No one immediately moved, as unease settled across attendees' faces.
After a brief conversation behind closed doors with town manager Steve Riley, deputy town manager Greg Deloach, council attorney Greg Alford and a sheriff's deputy, Bennett reconvened the meeting.
A subsequent vote to reverse Hoagland's ban and allow him the typical three-minute public comment period passed 6-1, with only Bennett opposed.
"I think any citizen needs to have the right to speak," Councilman Lee Edwards said. "I don't think it was the right decision previously to try to not allow Mr. Hoagland to speak. As much we may disagree with people or not like what they have to say ... I don't think we should be limiting anyone."
Bennett emphatically disagreed, defending the ban.
"I personally don't think it's a matter of disagreeing or agreeing with someone. I think it's a matter of getting things done," he said.
"I think our taxpayers have an expectation that an orderly meeting will be conducted, that business will be done as efficiently and effectively as possible. For someone to come up and repeat the same things over and over works against that."
Hoagland spoke for almost four minutes to revive his relentless campaign against the chamber, which he has repeatedly accused of financial malfeasance.
"It's not a privilege, it's a right, and it's mandatory, so I'm glad you made the right decision," Hoagland said.
LIKINS LAWSUIT, OTHER TROUBLE
Just minutes after Hoagland finished his speech, he was served with the lawsuit outside Town Hall.
The lawsuit follows a Beaufort County court's decision last month to grant Councilwoman Likins a temporary restraining order against Hoagland after he proclaimed her unfit to serve as director of the Boys & Girls Club of Hilton Head Island.
That order itself came just days after Hoagland was ejected from a Bluffton Town Council meeting by two police officers following vicious public comments against Mayor Lisa Sulka and then-councilman Ted Huffman.
The new lawsuit asks the court for unspecified damages for the mental and emotional distress caused by Hoagland's "campaign of intimidation, defamation, bullying and other misconduct." The restraining order prohibits him from harassing Likins or in any way mentioning her employment with the club.
Likins would not comment on the lawsuit Tuesday.
Hoagland pledged to fight the order and suggested he would petition the court for a change venue to have the case moved out of the area.
"No one should be able to stop any form of free speech," Hoagland wrote in an email during the second hour of the meeting. "My position is I can say what I want, mention who I want and if they don't like it, anyone can leave the room."
Local government leaders across the county have agreed Hoagland's tactics are inflammatory and disruptive, but attempts to corral him have only stoked Hoagland's commentary.
Bluffton Town Council meetings are now secured by metal detectors and police officers, although Bluffton police deny it's in response to Hoagland. Now a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office deputy is on hand for every Hilton Head Town Council meeting, which happened only sporadically before last month.
"I'll be back next meeting, and I'll have more to say," Hoagland said in closing Tuesday evening.
"I'm looking forward to that, sir," Bennett fired back sarcastically.
In other action
In other action Tuesday, Town Council also approved:
- Adopting the new Beaufort County animal control ordinance, which includes mandatory spaying and neutering of pit bull breeds.
- Submitting town-sponsored ideas for the county's expected 1 percent sales tax proposal to be considered later this year. The town's projects include $30 million for a yet-to-be-designed arts campus, $7 million for paving dirt roads, $210,000 for Mitchelville and an estimated $18 million needed to begin engineering studies on the expansion and replacement of the bridges to the island.
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