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Warthen: Change the system? ‘Aw, never mind ...’

JUST IN CASE you were wondering, or knew and had forgotten, this is the way the political culture pushes back against change in South Carolina: Not with a bang, but with an “Aw, never mind.”

Remember last week’s column, in which I offered, as a rare sign of hope, the gathering consensus that the state Department of Health and Environmental Control should be made more accountable by placing it directly under the elected chief executive? Well, ever since then, there’s been some backtracking.

Actually, it started even before that. While I was writing that column, I heard from my colleague Cindi Scoppe that Manufacturers Alliance chief Lewis Gossett was sending us an op-ed clarifying his position after The State’s Sammy Fretwell had reported that he and S.C. Chamber of Commerce president Otis Rawl were supporting legislative efforts to put DHEC in the governor’s Cabinet.

Not having received that op-ed (and we still hadn’t received it a week later, when this page was composed), I just wrote around the business leaders, and focused on another Fretwell story that reported that the chairman of the DHEC board, Bo Aughtry, was supportive of the Cabinet idea. “It is worthy of serious consideration because I believe it would take some of the political influence out of decisions that really should not be political,” he had told Sammy.

This was important because the board Mr. Aughtry chairs would be the very entity that would be surrendering power if the governor were in charge. I thought it reflected very well upon Mr. Aughtry.

On Wednesday, however, I began to worry when someone shared with me a memo that DHEC Commissioner Earl Hunter had sent internally on Friday, Jan. 16, which said in part (you can read it all on my blog):

On another note, several stories have been reported in The State newspaper and other media outlets recently regarding our agency being placed in the Governor’s cabinet. Two business organizations, the SC Chamber of Commerce and the SC Manufacturers Alliance were reported as being supportive. Information I have received from both of those organizations contradicts those stories.... In addition, an article this week reported that our board chairman was also supportive. Chairman Aughtry has e-mailed and called me to let me know and let you know that he was misquoted. His statement to the media was simply that he felt that any change that would take politics out of the equation is worthy of consideration. He also let the reporter know that he was 100% supportive of the agency and its staff. As usual, however, that statement wasnt included in the report ....

Then, on Thursday, we received the op-ed piece from Bo Aughtry that you find on the opposite page. Please read it.

He writes that “moving the agency into the governor’s Cabinet may be appropriate,” although “this is not my current position.” He does believe that “any move that will make DHEC decisions less subject to political pressures is worthy of consideration. Is this best accomplished by a move to Cabinet status? I do not know, but the objective is sound.”

If that’s a denial, it’s a mushy one. But he delivers another message that I hear a lot more loudly and clearly: Earl Hunter is a great guy. His staff is very fine, too. The same is true of the folks on the governing board.

And you know what? I agree. I don’t know all of those people, but I know Earl Hunter, and he is a great guy. He goes to my church. I truly believe he is a sincere advocate for the state’s health and environmental quality.

But you know what else? This isn’t about how I feel about Earl Hunter. It’s about the fact that we have a system of government in this state that does not allow the public will to be expressed clearly and effectively through this or any other agency that does not report to the elected chief executive.

Too often, the need for such accountability is expressed in punitive terms: A governor could fire an agency head who isn’t getting the job done. But an agency head who has the governor and his bully pulpit behind him will have a lot more political leverage for doing his job. Which is better: having the unelected board chairman “100% supportive of the agency and its staff,” or having the same support from the governor and his bully pulpit? As things stand, Mr. Hunter has no one at his back with any juice, but he does have to keep his board and 170 legislators happy, which is not a recipe for bold reform; it’s a recipe for caution.

What I want is a system that gives South Carolinians someone to hold accountable for the fact that we take too much of the nation’s waste and are not as healthy as folks in other states. Such a system would also give the good, dedicated people at DHEC the political leverage to change the political dynamic in this state as it affects their mission.

We’ve been here before. When this newspaper started pushing hard for a Cabinet system back in 1991, we ran smack into the fact that the then-commissioner of DHEC was also a terrific guy, named Michael Jarrett. He was enormously respected in state government circles, and rightly so. He spoke out strongly against making DHEC a Cabinet agency. He did so as he was fighting cancer, which took his life in 1992. Lawmakers listened, and did not make DHEC a Cabinet agency.

We don’t need another reform debate based in how lawmakers feel about those serving in the current system, because in South Carolina, the reform argument always loses such debates. Once it becomes about ol’ so-and-so who has the job now, forget about change: Aw, never mind.

The thing is, if Mr. Hunter and Mr. Aughtry were replaced tomorrow — something I am not advocating — it would not change one bit the fact that voters have no one they can hold responsible for improving our public health and environmental quality.

Mr. Aughtry was right the first time, and he’s still right: Reform is “worthy of consideration,” because “the objective is sound.”

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