Editorial: Chamber contract small step for town

After more than 30 years of spending millions of dollars to market Hilton Head Island, the town and the chamber of commerce have their first written contract setting out accountability and transparency expectations for the next five years.

Town and chamber officials involved in months of closed meetings to discuss the contract see it as a good step forward and hope it will put past acrimony aside.

Our hope is that the contract will lead to greater openness in town and chamber relations, particularly when it comes to spending the $1.5 million or so the chamber receives each year from taxes on overnight lodging. As the town's designated marketing organization, the chamber uses that money to try to attract visitors to the area to boost the local economy.

Over the years, some have been concerned about how the chamber spent town funding, especially in light of high salaries paid to chamber officials. They have also questioned the results of chamber marketing efforts and the mingling of public and private funds.

The contract should make headway toward addressing those concerns by requiring the chamber to provide an audit each year and allowing a town representative to have a voice in which auditing firm the chamber hires. A town designee can inspect chamber financial records twice a year. The town can also assign a representative to the chamber committee that forms the annual marketing plan presented to the town.

Some believe the contract doesn't go far enough, as evidenced by the split vote Tuesday and comments from the audience. The chamber says it welcomes the new oversight, but it doesn't look like the town gained much new territory.

What we need from an agency taking that much public money is for it to act like a public entity and be more forthcoming on all its spending.

With so many concerns about this contract, and Mayor David Bennett calling for further refinements, the five-year term is too long.

The town also heard calls for a forensic audit of the chamber to determine whether there have been past misdeeds. Some wanted a provision that S.C. Freedom of Information Act be followed. Some also said the chamber's marketing vision should be included, with the town able to incorporate ideas into that plan.

But those provisions aren't needed in the contract.

First, there's no evidence the chamber has done anything that would require the expense and disruption of an extensive forensic audit.

Second, compliance with the S.C. Freedom of Information Act is already required by law for spending government money. Of course the chamber should follow it, regardless of what is in its contract with the town.

And third, the town doesn't have the expertise to be heavily involved in the marketing plan. To do so would require hiring more people at a greater cost to taxpayers, and it would duplicate services the chamber already provides.

But this contract should be considered a first step. The chamber must be more open with its financial records because of it, and we hope the town will be more diligent in monitoring how town money is spent and exploring what other options it may have.

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