Greenwood TB outbreak focuses attention on rare SC legislative oversight process

sfretwell@thestate.comAugust 11, 2013 

Catherine Templeton, director of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, answers a question about the department's handling of the tuberculosis crisis in Greenwood County during a Senate Medical Affairs committee meeting inside the Gressette building on State House grounds.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • Useful oversight or ‘waste of ... time?’ A bill to create a new state Administration Department includes a requirement that legislative committees regularly hold oversight hearings for state agencies. Now, those hearings are irregularly held and, generally, in response to a crisis, such as the recent hacking of the state Revenue Department and the state health department’s much-criticized response to a TB outbreak in Greenwood. A look a what some key players and government watchdogs say about the prospect of more oversight hearings: ‘Self-serving, political side shows?’

    ‘Legislative hearings intended to inform the public and constructively look at how we, as a state, can do better are both important and very appropriate. Legislative hearings intended to be self-serving, political side shows are nothing but a waste of taxpayer time and money. The governor favors the former.’

    Doug Mayer , spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley , R-Lexington

    ‘I learned a lot’

    ‘I had questions as a citizen. I didn’t view the hearing as political at all. I’m not saying others might not have had different motivations -- but I learned a lot, and I think maybe the public did too.’

    State Sen. Tom Davis , R-Beaufort

    ‘A disaster-relief project’

    ‘Now, it’s sort of like a disaster-relief project. Maybe you could avoid the catastrophe if had the hearing before hand.’

    John Crangle , head of S.C. Common Cause, a watchdog group

— Some S.C. legislators think they should hold more regular hearings with state agencies to expose problems and discuss how the Legislature can help resolve thorny issues that might otherwise be hidden from public view.

Meetings like the Senate committee session last week on a botched health department disease probe can coax hard-to-get answers from agency heads, several senators agreed after Thursday’s hearing.

It is the Legislature’s job to act as a watchdog over state agencies, they said, adding that is a job that legislators often do not do well.

“This is what has been lacking at the state level,’’ said state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort. “It is an important role in the checks-and-balances system for the Legislature to play.’’

Democratic Sens. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg and Joel Lourie of Richland said they did not learn everything they wanted to know at Thursday’s Senate Medical Affairs Committee meeting and were frustrated by sometimes elusive answers from health department chief Catherine Templeton.

Hutto, Lourie and Davis are members of the committee.

Still, they said the session provided some new and important details on why the Department of Health and Environmental Control failed to quickly test children for tuberculosis and notify their parents of a TB outbreak in a Greenwood County school.

More than 50 school children tested positive for tuberculosis but were not checked by the health department for the disease until May 31 – more than two months after the department first learned a janitor likely had an infectious form of the disease.

During Thursday’s hearing, Templeton said for the first time that she knew about the investigation before she stepped in personally the week of May 20 to resolve the slow-moving probe in the town of Ninety Six. Previously, Templeton had said she first learned of the problems in late May.

“I learned that Ms. Templeton did know about the outbreak, which contradicted earlier statements she had made,’’ Lourie said.

Lourie said that revelation was significant, as was testimony from a school administrator and a parent who said Greenwood residents remain upset about DHEC’s handling of the matter. Without the hearing, Lourie said he and the public might not have known much about why the agency moved so deliberately. Templeton blamed the problem on lower level staff members, who have been fired.

Political posturing sessions?

The hearing last week into the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s response to the tuberculosis outbreak was not unprecedented.

In recent years, legislative committees have held sessions when major controversies have arisen at agencies, such as a data breach at the Department of Revenue that exposed millions of South Carolinians to potential identity theft. Committees also have looked into the forced early retirement of the Department of Natural Resources’ popular director, as well as money shortages at the S.C. Department of Transportation.

Still, most legislative hearings in the Palmetto State are tied to specific bills or to budget requests by state agencies. That’s because, unlike their counterparts in Congress, S.C. lawmakers do not routinely hold hearings with state agencies to explore issues and reasons that certain actions were taken.

An expansive bill that would create a new state Department of Administration includes a section that would require legislative committees to hold hearings every few years to ensure state agencies and their programs are meeting expectations.

Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, generally like the idea of regular hearings. But, they add, some recent hearings have devolved into political posturing sessions that are unproductive and wasteful.

Bright, a member of the Medical Affairs Committee, said Thursday’s five-hour hearing on the tuberculosis outbreak is an example of that. Some senators, whom he did not name, asked questions of Templeton for hours that Bright said were redundant.

At one point during questioning, Templeton accused Democratic senators of trying to make her look bad because she worked for Republican Haley. Committee chairman Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, a Haley ally, said the hearing resembled the Galivants Ferry Stump, a traditional gathering of Democratic candidates in Horry County.

“Legislative hearings intended to inform the public and constructively look at how we, as a state, can do better are both important and very appropriate,’’ Haley’s spokesman, Doug Mayer, said in an email Friday. “Legislative hearings intended to be self-serving, political side shows are nothing but a waste of taxpayer time and money. The governor favors the former.”

Mayer said testimony at Thursday’s hearing reinforced assurances that DHEC took the proper action after “it became clear there were problems in the Greenwood investigation. As was made evident during the hearing, it’s beyond time to end the political posturing and really focus on healing the families and children dealing with this medical issue.”

However, Republican Davis and Democrats Hutto and Lourie said no one was trying to score political points at Thursday’s hearing. Detailed questions were asked in an attempt to learn information that only could be obtained in a public forum with DHEC officials under sworn testimony, they said.

“I had questions as a citizen,’’ said Davis, a Republican known to break with his own party on some issues. “I didn’t view the hearing as political at all. I’m not saying others might not have had different motivations – but I learned a lot, and I think maybe the public did too.’’

‘Disaster-relief project’

John Crangle, who heads the government watchdog group S.C. Common Cause, said legislative committee hearings always will be filled with political grandstanding, but that doesn’t mean the fact-finding sessions should not be held.

Crangle agrees with Lourie, Hutto and Davis that legislative committees should hold routine hearings with agencies, even if there are no crises to explore. Now, however, most legislative hearings concerning agencies are held in response to a controversy, such as in Ninety Six, Crangle said.

“Now, it’s sort of like a disaster-relief project,’’ Crangle said. “Maybe you could avoid the catastrophe if had the hearing beforehand.’’


Greenwood TB outbreak

Useful oversight or ‘waste of ... time?’

A bill to create a new state Administration Department includes a requirement that legislative committees regularly hold oversight hearings for state agencies. Now, those hearings are irregularly held and, generally, in response to a crisis, such as the recent hacking of the state Revenue Department and the state health department’s much-criticized response to a TB outbreak in Greenwood. A look a what some key players and government watchdogs say about the prospect of more oversight hearings:

‘Self-serving, political side shows?’

‘Legislative hearings intended to inform the public and constructively look at how we, as a state, can do better are both important and very appropriate. Legislative hearings intended to be self-serving, political side shows are nothing but a waste of taxpayer time and money. The governor favors the former.’

Doug Mayer , spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley , R-Lexington

‘I learned a lot’

‘I had questions as a citizen. I didn’t view the hearing as political at all. I’m not saying others might not have had different motivations -- but I learned a lot, and I think maybe the public did too.’

State Sen. Tom Davis , R-Beaufort

‘A disaster-relief project’

‘Now, it’s sort of like a disaster-relief project. Maybe you could avoid the catastrophe if had the hearing before hand.’

John Crangle, head of S.C. Common Cause, a watchdog group

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