In final forum before election, island mayoral candidates trade jabs and jokes

Seven candidates running for mayor of Hilton Head Island went back-and-forth on the issues Thursday in an effort to gain favor with voters before Tuesday's election.

The candidates traded jokes and jabs before a standing-room-only crowd during the forum at Hilton Head Plantation moderated by the League of Women Voters.

For the first time in 15 years, voters will elect a new mayor to fill an open seat. Mayor Tom Peeples is not seeking re-election.

The seven candidates are Jim Collett, former chairman of the town's Board of Zoning Appeals; Tom Crews, architect and town Planning Commission member; Ward 1 Town Councilman Bill Ferguson; Ward 3 Town Councilman Drew Laughlin; Ward 4 Town Councilman John Safay; Ed McCullough, co-founder of Swipe4Charities; and Dave Myers, part-owner of laser manufacturer Kigre, Inc., which is in a legal dispute with the town over the way it collects business license fees.

Most of the candidates began by taking swings at a town ordinance regulating land use and development, with Safay making the lone effort to quell the bashing.

Everyone but Safay said the LMO restricts commercial development and needs to be revised to promote economic growth on the island.

"The problems with the LMO are being recognized and worked on," Safay said. "It's the LMO that keeps the parking lot at Walmart from going up to U.S. 278 and businesses from having neon signs. If that's business unfriendly, then so be it."

Next up were ideas to strengthen the hospitality industry and bring more visitors to the island.

Collett said he has a plan to improve cell phone service and telecommunications on the island to attract a mobile workforce and corporate travelers.

"We've become a technological backwater," he said.

Safay shot back by pointing out the council approved two new cell phone towers on town-owned land.

Next up was Safay and Laughlin, this time over the contentious issue of whether to extend the Hilton Head Island Airport runway.

Safay voted against a joint resolution Wednesday between the town and Beaufort County adopting a 20-year master plan that calls for a two-phased extension of the runway from 4,300 feet to 5,400 feet. The first phase would lengthen the runway to 5,000 feet.

"I am in favor of the 5,000 foot runway to keep the airport within its current boundaries," Safay said. The second phase, extending the runway to 5,400 feet, would require rerouting Beach City Road and purchasing land, which he opposes.

"We did a terrible disservice to our residents," he said.

Laughlin argued neither the town nor county committed to extending the runway to 5,400 feet but merely "kept their options open," for that possibility.

Crews joined Laughlin in his support of the joint resolution. A new master plan would be needed should a 5,000 foot runway fail to ensure commercial air service remains at the airport, and federal funding could dry up by the time a new plan is adopted, Crews said.

Ferguson called for more thorough study of the issues. He wants to reduce property taxes, pursue economic development through public-private projects that "will be profitable for our island," and amend the LMO and other town codes.

McCullough criticized the council members for allowing an attitude and LMO that treats commercial development as "a potential ecological criminal."

He said he would bring a "business person's perspective" to town government. He also would cut salaries and other "low-hanging fruit" in the town budget, freeing more money to promote the island. His response was in opposition to support by Safay and Laughlin of increasing a tax on overnight lodging by one percent to generate more marketing dollars.

Myers wants to "make it easier for small businesses to do business on the island" and favors reducing taxes and license fees.