Former state insurance chief Eleanor Kitzman was picked Monday as director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, but the quick decision to hire her drew immediate questions from senators who must confirm the nomination.
The DHEC board chose Kitzman, an ally of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, just four days after Catherine Templeton announced her resignation as the agency’s director.
As director at DHEC, Kitzman would earn $154,879. DHEC’s chief legal counsel, Marshall Taylor will serve as acting director until the new director is confirmed.
Following a private meeting, the eight-member DHEC board voted to appoint Kitzman. Board member Clarence Batts was the lone member not supporting Kitzman. He abstained. Monday’s vote occurred via conference call, with only board chairman Allen Amsler and member Kenyon Wells attending the meeting in Columbia.
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Amsler refused comment on why DHEC moved so rapidly to appoint Kitzman and why the board did not conduct a detailed search, as it did before picking Templeton in 2012 after several months of deliberations. Templeton beat 250 candidates for the post.
“I’m disappointed that a more extensive search was not done,’’ said Sen. Joel Lourie, a Columbia Democrat and member of the committee that must approve the appointment. “This is one of the largest agencies in state government. It deals with very complicated health and environmental matters. And it concerns me that this action has been taken so quickly.’’
Amsler referred all inquiries about the decision to DHEC’s media relations staff, which could not answer questions about why the board chose Kitzman. Batts declined comment on why he abstained. Attempts to locate Kitzman for comment were unsuccessful following Monday’s late afternoon DHEC board meeting.
Kitzman, 58, is a Texas native who was insurance commissioner in South Carolina from 2005-2007 under then-Gov. Mark Sanford. She left the agency after a disagreement with Sanford and later ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2010. She also served briefly as director of the state Budget and Control Board in South Carolina. In 2011, she was named insurance commissioner in Texas.
News accounts in Texas say she was forced out in 2013 after Democratic senators complained that she did not stand up for consumers on insurance matters. Kitzman denied those allegations, but left the state to work with a private insurance business in New York.
Kitzman is not known to have any experience in public health or environmental matters, said Sen. Brad Hutto, an Orangeburg Democrat who also serves on the committee that must confirm Kitzman. If she does have such experience, Hutto said he would like to learn about that. Lourie and Hutto raised similar concerns when Templeton was nominated for the post three years ago. Templeton was an attorney with a background in labor law.
Hutto and Lourie said Kitzman may be a good pick, but it’s difficult to know that. They questioned why the DHEC board would not explain its reasoning for choosing Kitzman.
“You are making the most important decision like this and you won’t explain it? That is trouble in and of itself,’’ Hutto said.
Haley, who has said she wants to see DHEC be more friendly to businesses, said Kitzman is good pick for the DHEC position.
"As a former director of insurance and of the Budget and Control Board, we have seen Eleanor Kitzman's leadership and business experience, and it makes her a perfect fit for DHEC,’’ Haley’s office said in a statement Monday night. “We look forward to working with her as we continue our fight to make sure state government is serving our people and businesses, not the other way around."
Haley has credited Kitzman with getting her involved in politics. On her second day in office, Haley succeeded in getting Kitzman approved as Budget and Control Board director, the Associated Press reported.
DHEC is one of South Carolina’s largest agencies, with more than 3,500 employees. It has a broad mission, ranging from oversight of hospital expansions and tattoo parlors to issuing pollution permits for industry and regulating coastal development
Templeton resigned Thursday. She did not explain her reason for leaving, except that she had served her time in state government. There is widespread speculation that she wants to run for office, possibly against Republican Sanford for the Lowcountry congressional seat he now holds, although she has not been available to address that.
Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, said he remembers Kitzman as having a good reputation in South Carolina state government. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he was surprised by the decision and he said Kitzman will be fully vetted by the Senate. Both Davis and Hayes are on the screening committee
Lynn Bailey, a health care advocate who attended Monday’s meeting, said the board’s quick decision to appoint Kitzman represents “the hand of the governor.’’
“I would have hoped they would have done a 60- or 90-day search,’’ she said. “I’m a health care person so I want somebody with a strong health care background. Ms. Kitzman is a very strong manager. I would have liked to have seen somebody with a health perspective.’’
The Associated Press contributed to this story.