Hilton Head mayor describes plans and progress

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David Bennett and his family moved to Hilton Head Island in 2009. By 2014, the political newcomer had become the town’s mayor.

Bennett and his wife, Terri, have three children, two in college and one in middle school. He is a real estate developer and graduated from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in finance and real estate. Before serving as mayor, he was chairman of the town’s Planning Commission.

With a little over a year left on his first term, which ends in December 2018, Bennett was asked a series of questions to take stock of his past two-and-a-half years as mayor — what he’s done and learned during that time and what’s next on the to-do list.

QUESTION: What is the biggest challenge currently facing the town and how should it be addressed?
ANSWER: Many large challenges are perched atop the list. Hurricane Matthew recovery cost reimbursements — more than $40 million — and on- and off-island infrastructure improvements are both urgent and significant. Arguably, workforce availability and traffic and transportation issues are next. Providing preservation and stability to our important environmental assets, like waterways and wildlife, and our heritage and culture — the ingredients that contribute greatly to our identity — are no less challenging. But perhaps the single largest challenge covers every one of these: What role does government play in prudently using resources to promote and protect our citizens’ rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Because of the essence of our economy, that role includes an overarching challenge. We must achieve a sustainable balance among all those who experience Hilton Head at every level, including without limitation full- and part-time residents, guests, businesses and employees of those businesses. Our challenge is to manage preservation and progress, to protect our identity and community and, as I’ve said before, to responsibly receive our heritage and leave a legacy.

How do we address it? Staff and committees are simultaneously working on the individual challenges while the ongoing island-wide visioning initiative is meant to address the overarching challenge. Strategies for achieving, reviewing and maintaining the vision that galvanizes our identity and directs our resources will follow. That’s why our vision must be developed by a broad spectrum of those who have chosen to deeply invest their lives into our community.

QUESTION: What is your vision for the town's future?
ANSWER: My vision for the future begins with the community establishment of that island-wide vision I described. And we are purposefully, logically, methodically and deliberately takings steps to identify it. I want our children and their children to know and enjoy Hilton Head and desire to return again and again and bring others to share in the experience.

QUESTION: What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment as mayor and why?
ANSWER: The design and implementation of the five-year Sanitary Sewer Master Plan, which will make sanitary sewer service available to every islander, is surely the greatest accomplishment of this council. It’s a true public-private partnership that involves the town, the Hilton Head Public Service District and the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, and it is a nationally recognized endeavor. It’s a declaration or a confirmation to some of our longest-standing residents that they do, in fact, matter. It’s tremendously beneficial to our environment and therefore to every current and future islander.

QUESTION: What is the most frustrating part of your job, and the most rewarding?
ANSWER: I am very rarely frustrated, but when I encounter systems, individuals and/or processes — or the lack thereof — that contribute to inequities and favoritism, I attempt to address them. An underlying theme during my tenure has been to develop high-quality, understandable and transparent processes to guide our decision-making in order to ensure that whatever decisions are made are in the best interest of all islanders and are, by extension, equitable.

Also, biases and misrepresentations that promote unknown agendas and serve to divide our citizens rather than engage, inform and empower them to make good decisions can cause some frustration, but this undercurrent is so prevalent that it’s difficult to rectify.

The most rewarding part of my job surely occurs when something is accomplished that truly and directly benefits and impacts the people of our community. 

QUESTION: What is the most important lesson you have learned as mayor?
ANSWER: Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned is that comprehensive and effective communication, while vital, can be very difficult. In today’s world, information is delivered from so many varied sources — like newspapers, social media, email, word of mouth, etc. — that it’s difficult to effectively communicate in every medium in a timely manner with limited resources and to then correct any misinformation that may quickly be disseminated. I’ve attempted to open up lines of communication by self-funding and producing a regular email newsletter, Facebook page and website. The town is also seeking ways to speak directly to town matters on its website, social media outlets and in print, and Town Council has recently appropriated the funds necessary to hire a communications officer at the town staff level. Whether it is an emergency or everyday matter, we want everyone in our community to be completely and accurately informed.