Hilton Head chamber of commerce, tell the public how you’re spending its money

Hilton Head mayor David Bennett.
Hilton Head mayor David Bennett. File

The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce still needs to tell how it spends millions of dollars of public money, and the mayor is to be commended for still asking for it.

But instead, when Hilton Head Mayor David Bennett and others on Town Council asked for greater transparency at a meeting earlier this month, the chamber balked and the mayor was criticized.

Here’s the problem: Bennett says he cannot answer if a citizen asks where $2.5 million in tax dollars went last year after it was allocated to the chamber for tourism marketing.

That’s not right, and we’re glad Bennett and Kim Likins brought it up in a public meeting.

If anything, Town Council should have asked for more specifics.

They made a logical request. In approving the chamber’s marketing plan, they tried to tack on the condition that the chamber release detailed quarterly spending reports. They were generally supported by council members David Ames and Marc Grant, but not John McCann and Bill Harkins. They were accused of making a surprise attack. That issue was settled in 2015, they were told, when the town entered a hotly-debated five-year contract with the chamber to be its Designated Marketing Organization.

Bennett, who is not seeking reelection, deserves credit for not letting the issue die even as he prepares to leave public service.

The secrecy issue is not going away.

Likins is not the only mayoral candidate asking for greater transparency from the chamber.

And on Monday, a Beaufort County Council committee denied funding to its two chambers of commerce, citing a lack of transparency on how accommodations tax money would be spent for tourism and marketing.

We don’t buy the “secret sauce” defense, from the Hilton Head-Bluffton chamber. It says greater transparency would tip competitors to the “secret sauce” behind Hilton Head’s successful, $1.5 billion tourism industry and its national honors, such as being named Travel + Leisure’s No. 1 island in the continental U.S. for the third year in a row.

Those are great achievements, but nothing should stand in the way of complete public disclosure of how public money is spent.

Because the state Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the chamber is not a public body subject to the state Freedom of Information Act, it is now more imperative that the town and county governments that allocate the marketing money show the public how it is spent.

What we don’t want to ever see on Hilton Head is a lawsuit like the one a citizen filed earlier this year in Myrtle Beach against the local chamber there and the City of Myrtle Beach.

According to the Sun News, that the suit claims the chamber directed money to businesses started by current or former chamber employees, which the suit calls “crony companies.” Those businesses received money for “unsubstantiated goods” and marked-up service prices, the suit says.

The newspaper said the filing claims that the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce also provided no information in reports regarding the allocation of tax dollars, reporting the names of vendors as “search marketing,” “video advertising” and “email,” among other terms. The distribution of tax money to the companies was without competitive bidding, the filing alleges.

Chamber officials called the suit a baseless, vindictive attack. That may be true, but it nevertheless illustrates the importance of local governments doggedly pursuing detailed public disclosure of how the marketing millions are spent. It’s not too much to ask.