If state senators want a say in how the state Department of Health and Environmental Control operates, they'll have a chance when they take up the appointment of the agency's new director.
DHEC's board has selected Catherine Templeton, now head of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, as its choice to run DHEC. Her appointment must be signed off on by Gov. Nikki Haley and confirmed by the Senate.
It's unlikely Haley's hand-picked board came up with someone she doesn't want. The vetting will come in the Senate confirmation hearings. We hope there are tough questions. Templeton has no experience in the health or environmental regulatory fields, and that's very troubling.
The agency's former commissioner, Earl Hunter, was its legislative liason when he was picked to lead the agency in 2001. He joined DHEC as a water quality inspector in 1980.
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Templeton maintains she is a good manager, one with intelligence and a law degree. She says DHEC needs "someone directing it that has common sense, invites all perspectives and makes rationally based decisions. What else can you ask for in any position of leadership?''
But Templeton has a short track record in the job she has now, and that's been marked by criticism of her decision to commute from her Mount Pleasant home, rather than move to Columbia. She told The (Columbia) State newspaper she plans to oversee DHEC from its North Charleston office.
Logistically, that might be possible, but it also sends a message of disengagement to the agency's employees and the public it serves. Templeton should be at the center of the agency's operations if she gets the job.
DHEC's expansive duties touch many aspects of our lives. And while we recognize that there is an economic development component in its mission, we rely on DHEC to watch out for our health and the environment we live in.
Haley's call to make DHEC more business friendly should be challenged and tested by the lawmakers who will have a say in who runs the agency.
What can the people of South Carolina expect from this critical agency? What confidence can we have that the decisions made are in the public's best interests and not in the interests of a special few?
All of this comes as we watch the House and Senate work to upend the DHEC board's decision to grant a water quality certification permit for the Savannah River dredging project. Both have unanimously passed a resolution to overturn that decision.
Haley's spokesman says she will veto the resolution, but the unanimous votes signal there's very little chance her veto would be sustained.
DHEC has long been criticized for its tendency to listen to lawmakers and private interests on decisions that should be based on science, the law and the public good. Undue influence from the governor's office is not welcome either.
Templeton's confirmation hearings could offer an opportunity to hash out what the governor and legislature want and expect from this agency.
The people of this state should weigh in, too.
We vote for an agency whose primary mission is to make sure the air we breathe, water we drink and food we eat is safe, one who makes sure the health care we receive is the best it can be and one who watches out for the natural resources that underpin our quality of life and livelihoods.
If DHEC does that, we're confident economic development will take care of itself.