DHEC board chairman thinks governor should control embattled agency

The chairman of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control Board says putting the governor in charge of his agency warrants “serious consideration” to reduce political pressure DHEC staff members face.

Bo Aughtry, a Greenville developer, has been a staunch supporter of the agency, but Wednesday he joined DHEC’s previous two board chairmen and one chairwoman in saying the change could bring improvement.

Former board leaders Elizabeth Hagood of Charleston, Brad Wyche of Greenville and John Hay Burriss of Chapin told The State they favor the idea of making DHEC a Cabinet agency directly under the governor’s control. The leaders of the state’s top business and conservation groups, which are often at odds, said recently they, too, favor putting the governor in charge of DHEC.

“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,” Aughtry said.

Following a series in The State in November about missteps at DHEC, the Conservation Voters of South Carolina launched a campaign to make the department a Cabinet agency. A bill has been filed in the House to dissolve the DHEC board and let the governor appoint its director. A companion bill is to be introduced soon in the Senate.

Among other things, The State newspaper’s series showed the agency has failed to protect drinking water in some neighborhoods, signed off on development close to flood-threatened beaches, and allowed construction of a massive coal-fired power plant at a time of growing national concern over coal’s environmental impact. The series also noted that DHEC has overseen the rise of mega garbage dumps, an issue that prompted conservationists Wednesday to ask lawmakers for a two-year moratorium on new landfills.

Critics say DHEC’s problems stem from poor leadership and a lack of accountability. The department is overseen by a seven-member board, which hires a commissioner to run the day-to-day operations. The governor appoints the board, but has no direct authority over members or the commissioner.

Hagood said legislators interested in a specific issue at DHEC are known to threaten budget cuts if the department doesn’t make what they consider the right decisions. Each year, DHEC grants thousands of environmental permits that affect citizens across the state.

DHEC staff members “get very mixed signals,” Hagood said after a legislative briefing Wednesday sponsored by conservationists. “They are undermined every year in the Legislature by somebody who doesn’t like the latest directive. It forces them to not take any action — or to be the least responsive they can because they don’t want to alienate their funding source.”

Gov. Mark Sanford favors the idea. But Republican Rep. Dan Cooper, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is cool to it, saying the state’s existing Cabinet agencies have problems.

Aughtry said he trusts the judgment of Hagood and Wyche.

Hagood and Wyche, like many conservationists, once favored keeping DHEC out of the governor’s Cabinet as a check and balance on a governor who might be uninterested in the environment. But the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, a legislative lobbying group for the state’s major environmental organizations, says having a citizens board at DHEC hasn’t worked.

Aughtry, Wyche and Hagood said a recent change in state law helped persuade them changes are needed. Final administrative permit decisions are decided by the S.C. Administrative Law Court, which has effectively compromised the board’s authority, they said. Before, the Law Court’s decisions could be appealed back to the DHEC board.