Getting to Know the Real St. Francis
Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012
DHEC director needs some expertise
THE LAST TIME the board of the Department of Health and Environmental Control needed a new director, it knew exactly where to look: in the office of legislative and constituent services, aka, its lobbyist. The board knew to look there because that’s where it found its previous director. And the one before that. For a quarter-century, the primary job requirement for the director of the state’s chief environmental agency has been a good working relationship with and appreciation for the Legislature.
The line of succession demonstrates more than any discrete action by the board or the agency that DHEC considers itself a child of the Legislative State.
This is an extremely unhealthy situation, as we’ve seen from numerous examples of individual legislators working behind the scenes to extract favors from the agency for their friends and patrons, and the agency making policy changes to please legislative leaders. So it is welcome news that the pattern will not repeat itself yet again. Of the three finalists to replace retiring director Earl Hunter, only one is a DHEC employee, and she is not a lobbyist but a health regulator; that is, someone who has years of experience doing the highly technical work that South Carolinians depend on DHEC to do in order to provide a basic, some would say minimal, level of protection for our environment and the public health. The bad news is that while another finalist has extensive experience as a health administrator, the third, has no background in health or the environment — and there’s good reason to believe she is the favorite: Catherine Templeton is a close ally of Gov. Nikki Haley, who gets a veto over the board’s choice, and while the governor can’t fire the board, she appointed all of its members last year, which suggests that they would be receptive to her suggestions.
We believe the governor should control the Department of Health and Environmental Control, just as the governor should control nearly all of the executive branch of government. But that doesn’t mean South Carolinians should sit quietly by as a governor — or, in this case, the governor and her board — puts someone without any relevant experience in charge of one of the state’s largest and most complex agencies.
Ms. Templeton argues, essentially, that she’s a great manager, and a great manager is a great manager. That’s the same argument the governor used when she brought in someone with no background in transportation to run the much less complex state Transportation Department, and look how well that’s worked so far. We might not object to the idea that agency directors are interchangeable widgets if DHEC didn’t have to enforce such intricate state and federal laws and regulations that rely on understanding precise scientific data. But it does.
Whoever the governor and her board appoint almost certainly will work to make the agency more “business friendly,” which is fine if that simply means cutting out unnecessary delays, not so fine if it means sacrificing what meager environmental protections our state enforces. The governor has every right to appoint people who share her vision, and the people of our state have every responsibility to hold her accountable if they don’t like that vision.
But there are plenty of people who share the governor’s philosophy and also have a scientific background and experience in either health or the environment. Perhaps it’s one of the other two candidates; if they’re ringers, selected to ease Ms. Templeton’s appointment, then the board could consider other candidates.
If Ms. Templeton gets the job, we certainly hope that she’ll prove us wrong about the need for expertise, or at least some passing knowledge, about the areas she will be responsible for. More than that, though, we hope we don’t have to find out, because the decisions that DHEC makes affect the very lives of every South Carolinian.