Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett wants you to know he experienced Hurricane Matthew firsthand.
In Orlando, Fla.
His friends and supporters have instructed anyone who finds this troublesome to move on.
They tell us that the location of a mayor while his town faces certain destruction is irrelevant.
They say it’s not a big deal that the mayor — someone who frequently reminds people that his mayoral job is part-time — chose to remain on vacation rather than return to the town he leads.
People telecommute all the time.
Wouldn’t you rather your leader be in a safe place guaranteed to have phone service and internet?
And besides, they say, he DID stay in touch. He posted videos and he regularly updated people on Facebook.
Which is true.
Bennett was very diligent about this.
It doesn’t help that, just over the bridges, Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka was embedded with first-responders and practically flak-jacketed while maintaining an authentic and informative presence on social media. Yes, she lost internet and phone service at one point, but she could still communicate with town employees, emergency responders, and print and TV reporters because she was there with them.
Meanwhile back at the princess castle, Bennett was posting photos he didn’t take and sharing information he didn’t gather.
But he did what he could with what he had, which included posting an awkward hotel video in which he was seated next to Town Manager Steve Riley’s talking-laptop head.
“We are not in the same location,” Bennett said in that Oct. 7 video with no further explanation (such as “Because I am at Disney World! And Steve Riley is not. Though you’re probably assuming right now from my words that we are simply in different yet near-to-Hilton Head evacuation spots because that would be the expectation. Or that maybe Steve Riley is the one not nearby and I am because I am the mayor.”)
“But we are on the same team,” the mayor continued.
Which was good to hear, considering the two don’t get along.
On the day of the evacuation, Bennett updated his Facebook page seven times.
The day of the storm, eight times.
Two days after the storm, he posted nine times.
The next day — a Tuesday, when Hilton Head Islanders were allowed to return — he added yet another post to his page, bringing the total to 10.
This extra post was one he made on the drive home from Orlando and 30 minutes after The Island Packet released a story exposing his whereabouts.
“Many of you are curious where I was during Hurricane Matthew,” Bennett wrote in the post. “We experienced Hurricane Matthew firsthand last Thursday and Friday in Orlando, Florida.”
Since Bennett returned home, he has continued his Facebook posting, highlighting the good works of people who stepped up in this very difficult time and offering fuller and more frequent updates on where things stand for the town.
It is a notable difference, and it is clear from his posts that he is a well-meaning and decent guy.
I get why people have rushed to defend him.
But let’s not confuse things.
Let’s not act like it’s gauche to bring it up now.
Merely posting on a Facebook page during a natural disaster is not acceptable.
It is passive.
Bennett relied on a method of communication that he assumed people just kind of knew he had.
He was, by definition, talking to a select audience.
Beyond that, the rate at which a person updates his Facebook page after a storm is not an adequate measure of someone’s leadership abilities.
If it were, then well … congratulations, Hilton Head Island, you have hundreds of mayors.
Mayors who gave constituents what they naturally wanted, which is as much actual and observed information as they could get about the condition of the community they love and reluctantly left.
Through Facebook, evacuees learned what happened during the storm from those who stayed behind. Residents took out their phones and recorded what they could. Some residents — even from their evacuation spots — collected every bit of information they found and shared it as widely as it would go.
Evacuees and second-home owners eagerly and gratefully flipped through those images from afar to gain a sense of what went down — much like, I assume, the mayor did.
Much like he had to do.
It’s not a good feeling, is it? Looking over and seeing your leader next to you in the crowd instead of in front of you?
South Carolina received its evacuation orders before Florida did. Early Tuesday afternoon, there was word the governor was going to announce an order for the next day.
Bennett could have gotten in that car Tuesday night, as many did, to beat the rush.
He could have returned Wednesday.
Or even Friday.
He could have rented a car and, if he hit traffic, he could have sat in it like people do when there’s traffic.
But he didn’t.
He said he was worried he would get stuck somewhere between there and here.
As if he were Marco Polo embarking on the Silk Road rather than a man 4 1/2 hours and a couple of highways away from the place he needed to be.
As if Savannah’s Mayor Eddie DeLoach hadn’t just cut short his own trip to return home … from Ireland.
In Bennett’s Tuesday Facebook post, he thanked Riley for keeping him safe. Did Bennett consider his Orlando stay to be his personal version of a presidential mountain-bunker?
Had he returned home, he would’ve been safe at the emergency operations center. He would have been available to tour the island the minute it was safe to do so, and he would’ve been available to assess the damage firsthand and communicate directly and efficiently with those around him.
Bennett messed up. He knows this.
But he should not consider his Facebook friends’ forgiveness nor their insistence that he’s infallible as his official absolution.
The mayor’s decision not to cut short his vacation and return home sent an unavoidable message to his constituents, town employees and the agencies that work with the town.
It said: “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t care to know what I’m doing. I don’t consider myself to have the same responsibility to the town that the rest of you do.”
Town employees and agency leaders won’t say it on the record, but the whispers are there.
I have heard them.
What kind of leader doesn’t return in a crisis?
What kind of leader isn’t upfront about his absence?
What kind of leader tries to justify it afterward?
Let’s just hope it’s the kind of leader who recognizes he made a mistake and will work hard to make up for it.