Hilton Head/Bluffton Chamber money, transparency questioned by Council members

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Three Beaufort County Council people have requested more transparency, asked SC Attorney General's office for opinion

How does the Hilton Head/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce spend their money?

Those are the details some people have asked for years.

Three Beaufort County Councilmen made that request in writing, and the response they got could start a chain reaction of events that could end up in court.

“It’s not my money, it’s not your money, it is taxpayer money and taxpayers have the right know where that money is being spent and their duly elected officials are watching it,” said Beaufort County Councilman Michael Covert

Michael Covert and his fellow council people are watching closely.

Three, Covert Brian Flewelling and Chris Hervochon sent out a letter to the Hilton Head- Bluffton Chamber of Commerce back in October. The letter asks for financial documents, banking, and credit card statements among other financial documents from the Chamber for the past year.

“Those things that we asked for are typical, things that would be used in an inspection or audit,” explains Covert.

In a response letter, the Chamber said by law it is considered a private organization, not public, and that it is in complete compliance with transparency standards set by the Supreme Court.

“The Chamber of Commerce has always performed in a fiscally responsible way,” said Charlie Clark, Vice President of Communications for the Hilton Head/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. “You only have to look at our audits which are done independently, you can look to our marketing plan, our results, as well as our budgets posted online to see that.”

How the Chamber spends the $2 million-plus accommodations tax money is posted online, but only twice a year, and with very few details.

“What we have on our website is important and exceeds what by law we are supposed to do,” says Clark. “Just as it comes to with any vendor what they are spending with their ad marketing dollars, whatever it may be those are important and those are proprietary in may cases.”

“Let’s look at it, let’s do the inspection and let’s move along if there isn’t, that’s awesome,” said Covert. “I think that would be phenomenal if there wasn’t. If there is we can address it they can address it and we can move on that way.”

“The Town of Hilton Head Island and the Town of Bluffton have inspection rights on our books twice a year,” said Clark. “We have made that same offer to the county, that they would be able to do that as well. they have not taken us up on that.”

Covert believes the Supreme Court decision the Chamber says supports them, may actually be a key to his argument as well.

“That decision says that the Chambers don’t have to open or rely on FOIA to open stuff up to FOIA to a citizen. And that’s fine. That puts the onus completely on county councils and town councils because we do have to open up to FOIA requests.”

“Mr. Covert is a politician running for office. I think viewers are smart enough to understand that when there is a politician running for office there are two sides to every story and they want to hear both sides. That’s important.”

“Numbers of taxpayers would agree that if as an elected official on their behalf isn’t allowed to see where their money is spent then we don’t need to spend it anymore,” explains Covert. “Its common sense.”
“Do you believe it will come to that, cutting funding if not?”
“Absolutely. It is possible.”

Covert has sent the request and response to the South Carolina Attorney General’s office to see if the Chamber might be in violation of a state non-profit law.

The Beaufort County Council could potentially sue the Chamber for the records they asked for.

The hope is to have the Attorney General’s opinion by the end of the year.

Hilton Head Island is questioning Chamber costs as well.

The Town recently re-opened bidding on marketing for the town instead of automatically renewing the $2.6 million dollar contract with the Chamber.

The Chamber and one other organization put out bids for the contract. The Financial Committee has heard their proposals but the Hilton Head Town Council has not made a decision yet.

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