The candidate to become South Carolina’s next environment and health director won the endorsement of a Senate screening panel Thursday, a move that clears the path for her to get the job – despite questions about her lack of experience.
The Senate committee voted 13-0 to confirm Catherine Templeton as commissioner of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. The full Senate will vote on Templeton, the DHEC board’s choice for the job, as early as Tuesday. She would be DHEC’s first woman commissioner.
Republican state Sen. Harvey Peeler, who chairs the committee, said the overwhelming committee support shows Templeton will likely get the Senate’s backing.
Lawmakers voting for Templeton, the state labor department director, said she made substantial improvements at the once-troubled labor agency and should do the same for DHEC, a sprawling department with a legion of critics.
“We’re going to make history again,” Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, said of the opportunity to improve DHEC. “I look forward to hearing the great performance you make as our next director of DHEC.”
Gov. Nikki Haley praised the selection. The Republican governor picked Templeton, a 41-year-old lawyer who lives in Mount Pleasant, as director of the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation about a year ago. Since taking office, she has helped Haley fight unions.
“We would like to congratulate one of our rock-star Cabinet directors, Catherine Templeton, for getting screened out of committee to be the next director of the Department of Health and Environmental Control,” Haley said on her Facebook page.
But some Democrats aren’t happy about Templeton becoming DHEC commissioner. They questioned Templeton’s decision to lay off dozens of employees at the labor department, why she has discussed eliminating numerous LLR divisions such as the Real Estate Commission, why she requested a salary that is about $30,000 higher than DHEC’s last commissioner – and why she won’t move to Columbia to run the agency.
“A whole lot of us would be real comfortable if we knew that you were there – or at least set three or four days, that you will be in Columbia,” Sen. Ralph Anderson, D-Greenville, said.
Templeton said she will be on the road a lot and will be available, whether or not she runs DHEC from Columbia. Although she has requested a salary of about $180,000, Templeton said she’s not interested in the job for the money.
Perhaps the biggest concern voiced Thursday is whether DHEC will become too accommodating to businesses needing pollution permits from the agency, which Haley has said needs to be more business friendly. Templeton’s limited experience in the environment and health arena, as well as questions about DHEC’s future direction, prompted Democratic Sens. Joel Lourie, Brad Hutto and Clementa Pinckney to abstain from approving her nomination.
“I’ve gotten calls from constituents . who said ‘Senator, how can you support someone who does not come with the background for the job, especially when there are so many more eminently qualified people – and people every day are let go from their jobs who have tremendous backgrounds?’” Pinckney asked.
Hutto asked Templeton a series of questions about her knowledge of specific environment and health issues, such as South Carolina’s infant mortality rate, the leading cause of death in South Carolina, and DHEC’s role in bioterror matters. She said she did not know the answers. Hutto also questioned why the DHEC board publicly advertised for a director with a degree in health, environmental management, business administration or a related field, but picked someone without those qualifications. Democrats said it appeared Templeton was targeted for the job from the start.“They posted a job description you don’t fit,” Hutto said.
Templeton was the DHEC board’s top choice, beating out about 300 applicants. Many agree the DHEC job is one of the toughest in state government. The agency is one of South Carolina’s largest departments and is responsible for protecting public health and the environment. It regulates everything from hospital expansions to wastewaster discharges.
Templeton, who spoke calmly and confidently during Thursday’s packed confirmation hearing, said she doesn’t need extensive experience in environment or health.
“I don’t think it’s too trivial to point out that there are people from LLR sitting behind me that can talk to you about whether or not I can manage people,” she said.
During questioning by senators, Templeton said she has no plans to get rid of workers at DHEC. She said the agency is short about 500 workers and she couldn’t envision losing any more employees. In her current job as state labor chief, Templeton has engineered substantial staff reductions because she said the agency was bloated with unneeded workers. DHEC, however, appears to be a different story, she said.
“The DHEC workforce is more scientifically trained,’’ she said. “I’ve got no plans to terminate anybody right now.’’
Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, was among the GOP members who applauded Templeton’s work at the LLR. Cleary drew applause from the crowded hearing room when he said government’s job was to be more efficient. Republican senators said Templeton had helped reduce complaints at the agency.
Thursday’s hearing drew an overflow crowd, with many representing interest groups affected by DHEC and the labor department. The crowd included environmentalists, waste lobbyists and firefighters, who said during a break in the session they were impressed with Templeton’s willingness to listen.Environmentalist Dana Beach also sent an email supporting Templeton’s nomination. Beach said in his message to Sen. John Courson that he has been “impressed with her competence and independence.”
Ann Timberlake, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said Beach’s sentiments are not unanimous in the environmental community.Timberlake said she needs to know more about Templeton’s thoughts on DHEC being more “business friendly.’’
Templeton said during the hearing that she thinks DHEC’s main job is to protect health and the environment when asked about her ties to state manufacuturers alliance chief Lewis Gossett, with whom she formerly worked. She said, however, that the agency could be more efficient.Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.