I SHOULDN’T have been surprised that the Eleanor Kitzman debacle revived, at least in the mind of Senate Republican Leader Harvey Peeler, the idea of bifurcating the Department of Health and Environmental Control. That is, after all, a great way of advancing the argument that the problem with Ms. Kitzman had nothing to do with Ms. Kitzman and everything to do with the impossibility of finding anyone to run such a large and complex agency, with such an expansive portfolio.
Sen. John Courson, who had joined with Sen. Peeler the last time he tried to split the agency, underlined that argument when I ran into him at the State House a couple of days after Ms. Kitzman withdrew from consideration; he noted that to be qualified to run DHEC, you’d need to be a physician and an engineer and a lawyer and a politician. I was a bit surprised to hear such a sensible person make such a nonsensical claim, which ignores the fact that we’ve never asked that much of a DHEC director, that the problem with Ms. Kitzman was the absence of experience — much less expertise — in any of the areas within DHEC’s purview.
But what really surprised me was that as Sen. Courson went into full lobby mode, he argued not only that DHEC should be divided but that its successor agencies need to be run by directors who work directly for the governor.
What surprised me even more was that at virtually that moment, across the lobby, Gov. Haley and state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman were pressing the House to let the governor appoint the superintendent of education.
The reforms we need
The problem isn’t that they’re wrong. They’re completely right.
The governor should hire and fire the director of the state Education Department, instead of forcing educators to become politicians — or, worse, sticking us with politicians who fancy themselves education experts.
The governor should be able to hire and fire the director of the state’s health and environmental agency — or its health agency and its environmental agency — rather than having to follow this around-the-elbow-to-get-to-the-nose route of appointing the board that appoints a director whose appointment the governor can veto.
(The governor also should be able to hire and fire the director of the departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Mental Health and Archives and History and the State Museum and ETV and many of the other 100 independent state agencies, which ought to be merged into a couple of dozen agencies.)
And as smart as the idea was to have a single agency to protect the environment and the public health, since public health can be so deeply affected by the environment, I’m becoming much less hostile to the idea of splitting those tasks apart, as long as it can be done in a smart way that does not result in even more separate agencies. The fact is that DHEC never has operated as a unified health and environmental agency; it’s been walled off, with the public health side given short shrift and the environmental side more interested in protecting polluters than protecting the environment.
The polluter-protection focus probably wouldn’t change if we split the agency in two, but it might be more difficult for a governor to just throw up her hands and say “It’s impossible to find anyone who has expertise in all the stuff this agency does” and try to give us someone who has no expertise in anything it does. And other problems.
The reason the revival of the empower-the-governor campaign is so surprising is that it comes immediately on the heels of … the Eleanor Kitzman debacle. A debacle so awful that even I cringe at the thought of trying to make the case right now — and I’ve been among the most passionate and consistent advocates of reform, since long before either Nikki Haley or Mark Sanford even knew what a governor does.
If ever opponents of gubernatorial empowerment had a powerful argument on their side, it is right now. Yes, Catherine Templeton was a questionable choice three years ago as DHEC chief, but she turned out to do a passing job. Yes, Lillian Koller turned out to be an awful choice to lead the Department of Social Services, but she looked like a good choice on paper; indeed, the governor could have been excused for that fiasco if not for the fact that she stuck by Ms. Koller long past the point where everyone recognized she was driving the agency into the ground. Yes, James Etter whistled while his Revenue Department held its IT security position vacant and hackers stole our Social Security numbers, but there was nothing about him that could have made a reasonable person think that would happen, and the governor did get rid of him fairly quickly.
But the only thing in this world that Ms. Kitzman had to recommend her for the DHEC post was her pal Nikki Haley, who presumably felt indebted to Ms. Kitzman for helping her realize that her calling was in politics. And there was so much to recommend against Ms. Kitzman beyond her utter unfamiliarity with anything the agency does: for starters, eight jobs in five years, being forced out of two of them, one because Texas Republicans worried that she was too pro-business and anti-consumer. And really, how anti-consumer do you have to be to make Texas Republicans queasy?
Gov. Mark Sanford set back the cause of giving more control of the executive branch of government to the government’s chief executive by … being Mark Sanford. Gov. Haley risks setting it back by making and standing by bad appointments.
A place to start
A few minutes after my conversation with Sen. Courson, Sen. Joel Lourie came out to the Senate antechamber to tell me how much he enjoyed my column that morning about the problems with Ms. Kitzman, to tell me about more problems that would have come out had she not withdrawn, to remind me that he had voted against confirming Ms. Templeton and note that she wasn’t as bad as he expected — and to tell me that the governor had made an excellent choice in naming Susan Alford to replace Ms. Koller at Social Services.
Sen. Lourie, who served with Sens. Tom Young and Katrina Shealy on the panel that forced Ms. Koller out, recounted the moment Ms. Alford won him over: When he asked her why she was the right person for the job, she told him she was surprised by the governor’s offer. Then she went home and read the brutal Legislative Audit Council report on the agency, and the more she read, she told him, the angrier she became. And when she said that, Sen. Lourie was sold, because he was convinced that what the agency needed was a director who was as passionate and as angry about its failures as he and Sens. Young and Shealy were.
If Gov. Haley wants to convince the Legislature to give more power to governors, she needs to win legislators’ trust, and there’s a pretty straightforward first step, starting with the next DHEC chief: Stop appointing Eleanor Kitzmans, and focus all of her energy on finding more Susan Alfords.