It was a stunning thing for the mayor of Hilton Head Island to say ... in public.
But David Bennett did it.
He stood in a large ballroom at the annual State of the Region gathering — where local leaders rattle off their seemingly endless accomplishments — and talked about raw sewage in yards on Hilton Head.
In his typical fashion — seeming uncomfortable in the stilted reading of a speech that comes across like a kid reciting, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” — he told the chamber-of-commerce crowd that he had “great news.”
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“There will be sanitary sewer service available to everyone who desires it on Hilton Head Island by July 3, 2021.”
And then there was this:
“It’s encouraging to me to know that in the next five years, those in our community without sanitary sewer service will no longer be trudging through raw sewage in their yard.”
So much for the island’s carefully sculpted posh image.
As islanders go to the polls Tuesday to elect Bennett’s successor, he should be remembered for seeing, acknowledging and spending what little political capital he had on the unseen of Hilton Head.
Bennett came in the door four years ago acting as if he’d been elected emperor, as if he were Walt Disney and Hilton Head was Walt Disney World. It seemed to surprise him that not only was he not emperor, he wasn’t even the town manager. As a community, we wasted a lot of time and effort in his apparent inability to deal with town manager Steve Riley.
Bennett, in the end, was a member of Town Council with one vote, with the added duty of setting the council agenda.
But he had the bully pulpit.
One Hilton Head
Bennett used the bully pulpit to push a vague notion of visioning a future for Hilton Head.
A lot of it is beyond the scope of my pea brain to understand. And we did a vision two mayors ago. It also rubbed me wrong for Bennett to insinuate that too little was accomplished by the town prior to his arrival, and that much of it was mistaken and lacking in vision. I disagree.
But Bennett also used his bully pulpit for something much less sexy — and much more important to Hilton Head — than dreams of a grand performance venue.
He used it to address head-on, in public, as priority No. 1, the lack of paved roads and sewer service in Hilton Head’s non-gated communities.
And so it was that a former Midwesterner, living behind guarded gates with a young family and working full-time, advanced at every turn the complicated causes of this sea island’s indigenous Gullah community.
It’s not as if nothing was being done before Bennett became mayor. But he put out front for all of us to deal with a lot of issues that few islanders have to deal with on a daily basis, or even think about.
We are all the better for Bennett’s bully pulpit cry that this is one island, one community, one Hilton Head.
That’s the name of a free community picnic held on the Fourth of July for the past four summers.
It’s where Bennett repeatedly got wet in a dunking booth and two churches — Central Oak Grove Baptist of the Gullah community and Grace Community Church of the newcomers — sat a common table, as so rarely happens, and planned this successful event.
Bennett said it was to “create that forum to meet other people” that islanders don’t typically meet and sometimes don’t seem to know, or care, that they even exist.
Bennett used his bully pulpit to push the Mitchelville Preservation Project. Native islanders have begged since at least 2005 for Hilton Head to make it a prominent symbol of pride.
At a 2016 meeting at which Town Council approved $100,000 for the project to get a full-time director, Bennett said:
“It is untapped potential, and we have got to get off the train we are on and start investing in an asset in our community and help us realize our potential. There is no one else in the country who can tell this story that, forgive my language, we’ve been jacking around on for I don’t know how long.”
Last July came formation of the Town of Hilton Head Island Gullah-Geechee Land and Cultural Preservation Task Force, chaired by Levon Stevens.
It works with the Gullah-Geechee/Native Island Culture Organization and town staff on things like a Gullah Resource Center with a website. The town has now engaged a consultant to perhaps help guide the task force in how to best preserve the island’s Gullah heritage by dealing with heirs property or perhaps changes to the Land Management Ordinance to help the Gullah make better use of their property.
Also, the town is in the process of filling a new staff position of “historic neighborhood preservation administrator.”
We have new signs designating these historic neighborhoods, a small way of helping their stories come out of the shadows.
After his first year in office, Bennett said, “I think the biggest accomplishment of our entire community is coming together and resolving once and for all the legacy of unpaved roads and sanitary sewer service in our community. We still have work to do on the unpaved roads, but ...”
Not even an emperor could wave a magic wand and resolve the right-of-way issues that arise when you want to pave roads or the heirs property problems that weigh down Gullah families. A lot of people have been working on that for a lot of years.
But give Bennett credit for making these non-posh legacies a focal point.
Bennett seemed surprised at his final Town Council meeting on Nov. 7 when fifth-generation Hilton Head Islander and town Planning Commission chairman Alex Brown Jr. presented him with a plaque thanking him for his service to the community.
Brown said it was a token from the full community, not just the Gullah community that he champions.
It’s a milestone in the island’s 60-year-old “community trust issue” and that should be Bennett’s legacy.
“I feel inadequate to accept an award like that,” Bennett said, after posing for a photo with Brown with the full Town Council and Riley standing at the dais, clapping.
“I consider that this recognition belongs to all of us ... frankly.” And then he morphed into something of an awkward olive branch for Riley.
“Mr. Riley, my nature is to push people and push them hard. Not for any personal reasons but to drive individuals toward excellence.
“And I want you to know affirmatively that regardless of what’s been printed in newspapers or said elsewhere, that I think you are a very capable manager.
“And I know that our relationship has been somewhat mischaracterized by my drive for excellence.
“But I just want to be clear in my comments that I do think that you are a very capable manager and that the success that we’ve had is very much yours also, sir.”