COLUMBIA, SC — A quizzical mob of engineers and consultants wanted answers last month from the woman standing alone before them in a small Columbia meeting room.
Frustrated by the time it takes to get environmental permits, they peppered Catherine Templeton with questions about the much-maligned agency she took charge of one year ago.
Templeton smiled, then calmly answered the questions. In agreeing that the Department of Health and Environmental Control needs to shake off years of bureaucratic stodginess, she also stood her ground, saying some environmental permits take longer than others.
Not everyone heard what they wanted, but her friendly style won over plenty of people at the S.C. Water Quality Association meeting.
That was the most impressive new director Ive ever seen, said Paul Calamita, the public works groups attorney, who deals with environmental directors across the South. I said Wow. I thought that was fantastic.
A lot of folks are saying nice things about Templeton these days after a tumultuous first-year at the helm of DHEC. Templeton, an unflappable lawyer mentioned as a future political candidate, has spent much of her time revamping the agency responsible for protecting public health and the environment in South Carolina.
She has laid off more than 50 workers, forced out several high-ranking DHEC executives, sold 20 unused cars and consolidated agency offices all part of her campaign to make the agency more efficient. She also has led public dialogue on obesity and health, cleaned up a polluted Columbia neighborhood and pledged to break the backlog of 500 outstanding environmental permits.
Next week, shell hold hearings on how to eliminate unnecessary regulations. And she recently told a Senate committee that DHEC needs $46 million less in next years budget than requested last year.
Templetons big splash at DHEC has made conservationists nervous because she took control under the watch of Gov. Nikki Haley, who has said little about environmental protection in her jobs-first agenda. Some legislators are irked that Templeton opposed certain projects in their communities. And agency employees who were shown the door are considering lawsuits against the department.
But even those who are unsatisfied with some of Templetons changes give her good marks for her accessibility, energy and pleasant manner. They say thats a departure at DHEC, an agency criticized for a lack of vision and a circle-the-wagons mentality when faced with criticism.
Its night and day from my perspective, state Conservation Voters director Ann Timberlake said of the differences at DHEC under Templeton. Catherine is more willing to be head-on about things. We dont have to always agree, but shes very willing to talk, to receive information. She asks questions.
It has been refreshing to feel like if I have a question, shell get me an answer.
Perhaps the most telling view of Templetons performance comes from Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland.
I had concerns about her experience and some of the quick decisions she made when she first got there, said Lourie, who was one of a handful of lawmakers to vote against her confirmation last year. But Id have to give her credit. I think she has done a better job in recent months of listening and a much more thorough job of making decisions.
Lourie led the charge against Templeton last year, questioning whether she was experienced enough to run an agency as large and complex as DHEC. Lourie later blasted the former Irmo resident for laying off DHEC coastal division employees, one of whom was pregnant.
Some of her friends say the reaction to Templeton doesnt surprise them and indicates that one day it could propel her to higher office than DHEC chief.
Haley briefly considered appointing Templeton to fill the unexpired seat of U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. And former U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day OConnor, a friend of Templetons, recommended her for a state judgeship several years ago.
Charleston attorney Eric Schweitzer, Templetons longtime co-worker from her years as a labor lawyer, said she would make a good federal judge if the opportunity arose. Schweitzer said Templeton is winning people over not only with her ability to learn quickly but also because shes respectful and easy to talk with.
She has a magical demeanor, Schweitzer said. Very seldom will you see her when shes not smiling, even when delivering news somebody doesnt want to hear. When she listens to people, she is really listening. People like to be heard, whether you agree with them or not.
Templeton, 42, said she doesnt know if she wants to run for political office one day or if shed like to be a judge, but she also didnt deny interest.
Im not sure what is next, she said. It will be interesting to see.
One thing is certain: she wont retire from DHEC, Templeton said. Templeton said shes too outspoken to last a long time at the agency. She had a successful legal career before moving into state government, and her husband, Morgan, is an accomplished Charleston lawyer.
I dont have to keep this job, Templeton said. I would never sacrifice my integrity for anything.
At one point, Templeton said she offered to resign the DHEC post over a management style issue that erupted. She did not elaborate, except to say the governors office later told her not to quit. Templetons recent call to limit sugary soft drinks for food stamp recipients caused a stir, although its unclear if thats what caused her to consider stepping down.
DHEC, with more than 3,000 workers, touches the lives of most state residents. Among its diverse duties are considering pollution permits for industry, maintaining air and water quality, regulating tattoo parlors, overseeing hospital expansions and issuing birth certificates.
Established two years after Templeton was born, DHEC has been criticized for the layers of bureaucracy that businesses say slow down expansion plans. The agencys reluctance to stand up to industrial polluters has limited its ability to protect the landscape, air and water, environmentalists contend.
One of the biggest problems with DHEC is its size, Templeton said. It is so large and has so many disparate duties that it probably should be broken into separate departments, one for health and one for the environment. Thats a call the Legislature would have to make, but notable, because former director Earl Hunter stridently opposed cutting the agency in two.
I would absolutely advocate the agency be split, Templeton said. Its just too big.
Cheerleading and blow pops
A former Irmo High School cheerleader, Templeton is the daughter of prominent Columbia insurance executive Scott Brawley and teacher Linda Brawley.
Among her friends at Irmo High was Andre Bauer, who later became lieutenant governor. Bauer used to sell her and fellow students blow pops at lunch to earn extra cash, she said.
After her high school graduation in 1989, Templeton studied politics and philosophy at Wofford College, worked for textile tycoon Roger Milliken, and in 1998, earned a law degree from the University of South Carolina.
While at Carolina, she kept living quarters in her parents 8,000-square-foot home on Lake Murray. The three-story, Georgian-style house commanded sweeping views of downtown Columbia more than 10 miles away and included a porch swing in her room, according to a 1995 story in The State newspaper.
The cheapest way to furnish my room was to put a porch swing in it, a chuckling Templeton said.
Two years out of law school, Templeton took a position with the respected, international Ogletree-Deakins firm, which represents companies on labor matters. She worked for 10 years as a lawyer at Ogletree before Haley chose her to run the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation following Haleys 2010 election.
Templeton said she took her first step into public life for a simple reason.
I was bored, she said. I had had enough of solving other peoples problems in private practice.
During her one year at the labor department, she instituted sweeping changes and laid off more than 40 workers as part of an efficiency effort, much like that at DHEC today.
Her decisions to let people go drew ample criticism and lawsuits. One 13-year veteran has filed a federal lawsuit claiming his First Amendment rights to free speech were violated. At least three other suits were filed in federal court by fired employees last year, alleging racial discrimination. Templeton said her decisions were legally vetted, and she stands by her actions.
Id characterize (her actions) as unjustified, unnecessary and done with an ulterior purpose, said Jay Babb, a lawyer handling three of the labor department cases. Its interesting to me that she came into LLR and made substantial changes in the management, and now at DHEC, she apparently is doing the same thing.
Haley thought enough of Templeton to seek her for the post vacated by long-time DHEC chief Hunter in the fall of 2011.
Today, Templeton runs DHEC from two primary offices: the agencys coastal division in North Charleston and the departments historic Mills-Jarrett building on the old mental health hospital grounds on Bull Street. Her move to the white-columned building last year prompted a few questions; Hunter had always worked in a cramped office in the agencys main building, a drab facility nearby. Her decision to continue living in Mount Pleasant and working some days from North Charleston prompted complaints last year.
But Templetons accessibility to the public gives DHEC a public face it has never had.
She regularly speaks to trade groups, such as the S.C. Water Quality Association, visits rural health departments and holds question-and-answer sessions with agency employees and citizens. She said its important to talk with people, not only to get the agency out into the community but to learn peoples concerns firsthand.
She sometimes takes a state car for business, but at other times uses her own vehicle for work after dropping her three children off at school. In the past year, the state has reimbursed her more than $8,000 for travel, the vast majority for automobile mileage.
I think once everybody realized I was in fact working 60 hours a week, nobody cared, she said of her travels.
Templeton, who lives in one of the states first green developments, a neighborhood called Ion, said its not easy being away from home with school-aged children, but I have a great husband and children who think Im saving the world.
Templeton has gotten high marks for several specific actions at the community level.
In the span of six months last year, DHEC discovered and pushed for a cleanup in a polluted Columbia neighborhood, then took steps that resulted in the closure of a sewage dump in Pelion that neighbors had complained about for years.
Templetons recent health initiative also has drawn praise. While South Carolina has for years made efforts to curb obesity, she took the issue on as a personal crusade, raising awareness and pushing for better nutrition.
DHEC, however, still presents plenty of challenges and some remain skeptical of the agencys ability to change for the better. Gary Poliakoff, a Spartanburg lawyer who often has clashed with DHEC, said he is concerned about DHECs failure to aggressively enforce environmental laws.
Her job is highly difficult, primarily because of DHECs history, where industry has come to view South Carolina as a safe haven to get a permit, he said. She really does need to change the culture of DHEC.
Some also remain concerned that Templeton and the conservative DHEC board one day will grease the skids for a big industry to locate in South Carolina without proper environmental review. Noting that Haley has never spoken to her about approving a permit, Templeton said that wont happen on her watch.
Templeton said shell continue her efficiency initiative. When she arrived, Templeton said she found one division misusing a federal grant, the department using armed police officers to stand at an agency reception desk and cars sitting unused at department offices.
For the past year, Ive had no hobbies, she said. Im obsessed with trying to make (DHEC programs) better and easier and different. Im absolutely committed to being easier to deal with and more customer friendly, but not at the expense of the environment, the health or the mission of the agency.