Hilton Head Island mayoral race: Style, substance and the peoples’ right to know

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Hilton Head Island voters will face six mayoral candidates on Tuesday’s ballot, all of whom have distinguished themselves.

Of the newcomers to politics, Alan Perry offers blood that runs saltwater from being raised on the island in a family very involved in the community’s civic and business fabric, and he continues that today while raising his own family here. Barry Ginn offers the practical approach of someone who for more than 30 years has had his ear to the people and dreams of Hilton Head, and finds the town making clumsy responses to local needs. Rochelle Williams is a native of the island with a finger on the pulse of the overlooked human needs here. Michael Santomauro has been a mortification to the community with his attention on the Middle East and his Holocaust revisionist beliefs.

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Leading the ballot are two experienced candidates: two-term Town Council members Kim Likins and John McCann. They have raised and spent the most money. And, fortunately for voters, they appear to be far apart on a handful of key issues. How you feel about these issues may help you decide who gets your vote:

* Visioning. This long process of trying to publicly discern who we are and where we want to go as a community has been championed by outgoing mayor David Bennett, who is not seeking re-election. McCann essentially says it has been a waste of time with no clear direction, unless it might be to fulfill what he sees as predetermined motives and agendas. He says it created more ill-will than good will in the community. On the other hand, Likins supports the visioning concept and process, and thinks it is important to a community that must do more than live on past laurels.

* Steve Riley. The longstanding, popular town manager became the center of a political storm after Bennett took office, with Town Council spending a lot of time behind closed doors discussing his future with the town. McCann was, and is, 100 percent for Riley. Likins was not solidly in his corner, but does not call for Riley’s removal. Her view of Riley is more balanced than McCann’s, and her description of his strengths and weaknesses is nuanced and more realistic. Credit goes to McCann for moving the discussions to try to remove Riley from the back room and into public view, where a truce could be found.

* Chamber of Commerce transparency. Likins says that the public should see how every penny of the millions of tax dollars that go to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce each year are spent. We applaud her for that. She is on the right side of that issue, one that likely will serve as an anchor around the chamber’s ankle until it is resolved. McCann disagrees, saying that the public should not see how each vendor is paid because it is information the vendor may not want other clients to see. McCann favors trying to meet somewhere in the middle, but he clearly puts the chamber’s agenda ahead of the public’s right to know how public money is spent. We find this particularly concerning since he has beaten the drum for transparency in his campaign. Will he only be for transparency when it suits him and those he supports?

* The arts. Likins is a clear champion of the arts and believes a larger, coordinated arts scene can play an expanded role in attracting visitors and residents, while supporting a younger vibe for a retirement community. We worry that there is not enough financial support in the community for such an effort, and that the town will find itself subsidizing something the community doesn’t fully back. McCann says he supports the island’s historical, arts and cultural centers, but does not share Likins’ passion in this area.

Both candidates also talk about maintaining a work force, the density of island development, timeshares, traffic congestion, public safety, and aging and empty commercial space. But not in great enough detail to separate themselves. Besides, these are areas that are going to need as much support and guidance from outside Town Hall as within — and voters face a tough choice on deciding who they want in Town Hall to lead the charge.

The other big difference between McCann and Likins is the way they carry themselves. McCann shoots from the hip and speaks his mind in few words. Some will find him off-putting; some will find him refreshing. Likins is polite and pleasant. She is more likely to take a full circle with an answer, speaking longer and in broader and more vague terms, harder to pin down.

Both know their stuff, and we see both as worthy selections. We lean toward McCann’s more plain-spoken leadership style, particularly after four years of Mayor Bennett choosing each word so carefully that he often said nothing at all. And we appreciate McCann’s “minding the store” focus. Still, we cannot muster full-throated support for a candidate who shows favor to institutions over the public.

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