By Paul Gable
A recent court decision in Beaufort County could have an interesting impact in Myrtle Beach.
Circuit Court Judge Michael Nettles ruled the Hilton Head-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce must allow public access to information regarding how the chamber spends public funds under the provisions of the South Carolina Freedom of Information Law.
Hilton Head businessman Skip Hoagland brought a lawsuit for access to the chamber’s records of how public funds are spent. At issue were the accommodations tax monies that the chamber receives from the towns of Hilton Head and Bluffton as well as Beaufort County and grant money from the SC Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
The Hilton Head-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce argued its records were not subject to FOIA requests since it is a private, non-profit organization.
In his ruling, Nettles noted the SC Freedom of Information Law defines, “any organization, corporation or agency supported in whole or in part by public funds or expending public funds,” as a public body.
Nettles also noted that while the chamber provides a budget and accounting summary of how those funds are spent, neither provides specific information on, for example, vendors used.
The MBACC receives approximately $5 million per year from City of Myrtle Beach accommodations tax collections and approximately $22 million per year from the city’s one-cent tourism sales tax. In addition, the MBACC receives approximately $6 million from Horry County accommodations tax collections and approximately $5 million or more annually from SC Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism grants.
The MBACC uses those funds for “out-of-area” tourism marketing. Through the years, the MBACC has been criticized by non-members for giving preferential treatment in its marketing efforts to chamber members even though public funds are being used to fund them.
Additionally, the chamber has used funds to help promote new airlines and airline routes flying to Myrtle Beach International Airport. For example, when Horry County lost $500,000 several years ago supporting new WestJet service, the chamber also expended some additional advertising funds on the new service.
It would be nice for chambers of commerce expending public funds to have to provide specific information on those expenditures – How Much, To Whom, Where, For What Specific Purpose. How much of the funds are used for advertising, how much go toward administrative costs, what other expenses are covered with them?
Additionally, with the new Myrtle Beach focus on Communist China, it would be great to have the Chamber specifically identify how many of our publicly generated tax dollars are being spent in countries, acts that could have resulted in Chamber officials being placed on several of J. Edgar Hoover’s lists 50 or so years ago.
According to reports, the Hilton Head-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce plans to appeal the circuit court ruling and will ask the SC Supreme Court to take up the appeal directly.