Secret DHEC meeting questioned

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control board met secretly last week about legislation advocating major changes at DHEC - something top agency officials oppose.

Board members reached by The State declined to disclose what was said in the meeting.

But DHEC legal counsel Carl Roberts said he asked for the private session to give board members legal advice on two bills, including one that eliminates the seven-member board and puts the governor directly in charge of the agency. Board members voted to close part of their Dec. 10 meeting for the briefing, which Roberts said lasted about 15 minutes.

The meeting was apparently legal under South Carolina's freedom of information act, media law attorney Jay Bender said. But one advocate for open government said DHEC should be more willing to discuss legislative matters in public.

"It just gives the appearance of impropriety, to me, to talk about public legislation in a closed session," said Bill Rogers, director of the S.C. Press Association. "What are they hiding?"

Freedom of information and open meetings laws are intended to ensure the public knows what government agencies and elected panels are discussing. Closed-door meetings are allowed in some cases to discuss specific legal or personnel issues, such as a court challenge involving an agency. In South Carolina, the law says government lawyers can brief boards outside the public eye when "the legal advice relates to a pending, threatened or potential claim or other matters covered by the attorney-client privilege."

DHEC, South Carolina's sixth-largest agency, has been roundly criticized for approving pollution permits that benefit industry at the expense of the environment and failing to hold polluters accountable. Agency officials deny the charges.

One of the two bills discussed privately at the Dec. 10 meeting would abolish the seven-member DHEC board and put a secretary picked by the governor in charge of the agency. The governor now picks board members, but has no direct control once they are seated. The other bill had to do with a "certificate of need" requirement associated with certain DHEC permits, Roberts said.

Agency board members reached by The State said they mostly listened to Roberts, instead of talking about the pros and cons of the bill. They declined to elaborate.

"He was giving legal advice, not whether or not we were going to strategize one way or the other," said board member Edwin Cooper of Charleston County, who participated by conference call in the meeting.

Sens. John Courson, R-Richland, and Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, introduced the DHEC restructuring bill earlier this year to bring what they said is better accountability to the agency.

Agency commissioner Earl Hunter, chosen by the board, has said criticism of DHEC is unfair and has lobbied against the legislation. Cooper and two other board members reached this week by The State said they oppose the bill. The agency works efficiently as it is now structured, said Cooper and members Glenn McCall of York County and David Mitchell of Spartanburg County, each of whom said the private meeting with Roberts was proper.

Attempts to reach board chairman Bo Aughtry of Greenville and member Steven Kisner of Aiken County were unsuccessful this week. Board members Hank Scott and Coleman Buckhouse were not at the Dec. 10 meeting.

Courson said he would have been reluctant to close part of last week's DHEC board meeting.

"I would err on the side of openness," Courson said. "It's legislation pending before the General Assembly."