Hilton Head chamber seeks swift ruling on public body status

The (Hilton Head) Island PacketFebruary 28, 2013 

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— The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce has asked the S.C. Supreme Court to assume jurisdiction and swiftly rule on a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed against it last month by a longtime critic.

The lawsuit, brought by Skip Hoagland, claims the Hilton Head-Bluffton chamber is a public body because it receives accommodations tax dollars – money paid by tourists who stay in local lodging – from Hilton Head and Beaufort County each year. The FOIA defines public bodies as governmental entities or “any organization corporation or agency supported in whole in part by public funds. ...”

Hoagland is a longtime chamber critic who argues the chamber unfairly competes with some of its members by selling ads for chamber publications.

In an affidavit, chamber chief executive Bill Miles asserts the chamber is not a “public body” as defined under the state’s FOIA law “and therefore does not conduct itself as a public body.”

“I do not know of any chamber of commerce or convention and visitor’s bureau in South Carolina that considers itself subject to FOIA,” Miles said.

The chamber also says a speedy ruling is necessary because the outcome of the case potentially affects numerous other S.C. nonprofits. The Hilton Head chamber is a 501(c)(6) nonprofit corporation.

Hoagland has sued the chamber in Circuit Court in Beaufort County over the records issue.

However, the chamber also wants no action taken in that court until the Supreme Court decides whether to accept the case. The chamber argues that a long, drawn-out battle could harm its reputation amid “relentless public attacks and accusations of wrongdoing made by Mr. Hoagland.”

“Public confidence in the chamber’s honesty and integrity, as well as the willingness of persons to serve on its board, may be diminished so long as the issue remains unresolved,” according to the chamber’s Feb. 15 court filing.

Hoagland asked the chamber for various records on Nov. 26, saying he was entitled to them under the FOIA. The chamber, through its attorneys, refused, saying it was not a public body and therefore not subject to the FOIA.

Hoagland said Tuesday he’s only seeking transparency from the chamber and “is not the bad guy.”

Hoagland argues because the chamber is a public body, the FOIA requires it to grant him access to its books and records, as well as information on a proposed welcome center, employee salaries and other things.

The chamber’s argument that it is not a public body is based in part on a 1989 decision by an Horry County judge.

That judge ruled the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce was not a public body and therefore did not have to turn over documents to a local newspaper. The judge said that chamber was merely a contractor for the local governments that helped pay for its operations.

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