Hilton Head Island’s three-ringed circus might finally be leaving town.
Or so the ringmaster says.
Of course, he had never really acknowledged that a Big Top existed in the first place, but at Tuesday night’s epic Town Council meeting, it was hard for Mayor David Bennett to continue keeping up that appearance while he was swallowing flames.
“I can do better,” he told the standing-room-only crowd just after Councilman John McCann’s motion was seconded to bring out in the open discussions about longtime town manager Steve Riley — which the council and mayor had been conducting behind closed doors for more than a year.
“I want us to be unified,” Bennett said.
“We can do better,” Bennett said.
“We are a team,” Bennett said.
These were the right words to say.
The residents who had crammed themselves into Council Chambers certainly seemed relieved to hear them and to see that, instead of continuing to deny having any issues with Riley, the mayor was acknowledging them by pledging, along with the entire council, to work in support of the town manager from now on.
No more divisive behind-the-scenes nonsense or secret tugs-of-war over council alliances. No more gossip or clumsy orchestrations. No more chaos for town employees, who have had to work through and around the shenanigans.
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out just one little inconvenient observation here: Bennett was backed into a corner Tuesday night.
McCann and fellow councilmen Bill Harkins, Mark Grant and Tom Lennox left the mayor with little choice after their calls for transparency.
And Grant, who has been considered the swing vote on a potential Riley termination, finally picked his side. It wasn’t the mayor’s.
So, no matter how sincere any of us believe Bennett’s words to be or not be — and I hope they are — each syllable of his reconciliation could be considered a cover for that which he has been unwilling or perhaps too afraid to say in a public forum.
What are those words exactly?
I have no idea.
More importantly, neither do you — neither can you.
Here is what I do know, though: The opinions that Bennett has expressed about Riley in executive session over the past year are opinions that four councilmen considered important enough for you to hear and for the mayor to publicly own Tuesday night.
They are opinions that Bennett has worked really hard to keep from you.
This is what it seems like, anyway, based on the three-ringed show up to this point.
In ring one is Bennett’s family emergency at the Sept. 19 town meeting after council members seemed to surprise him with their motion. Bennett resisted cutting calls to cut the meeting short — until all but the Riley business had been dealt with.
In ring two is Bennett’s last-ditch attempt before executive session Tuesday night to prevent public discussion of Riley.
In ring three is Bennett’s final option, “Make nice now, before any council member can put ‘Remember what you said in that room with the door closed …’ on the public record.”
Or maybe there’s another way of looking at this.
Maybe Bennett was simply diving on a legal grenade Tuesday night to save the town from potentially getting sued for openly talking about personnel issues.
Maybe he thought he was saving the day.
Maybe he did.
Unfortunately, his continuing insistence that the things people can plainly see in front of their faces are not the things they are actually seeing, prevent him from getting the benefit of the doubt.
Instead he gets props for acting like a leader Tuesday night and he gets a healthy dose of cautious optimism that he will be a man of his word.
If not, then all of this was a colossal waste of everyone’s time and money.
And that would be a shame.
As Bennett pointed out to the crowd Tuesday night, he represents change for Hilton Head and change isn’t always easy for people.
That’s a given.
But good leaders know that change can come from earthquakes or it can come from sunshine.
The simple fact is this: Without buy-in from Hilton Head’s residents, Bennett will have nothing to show for his time in office.
Without the community’s trust and respect — which will only be gained through transparency and communication — there will be no buy-in.
And without ending the circus that he and his allies invited to town, there will only be more sideshows for Hilton Head’s residents to gawk at.
Bennett said the magic words Tuesday night: “I can do better.”
He hit reset.
Now he gets to try again.
Let’s hope he steps right up, folks.