The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is trying to keep secret its search for a new director, refusing to release the names of people who visited the state agency’s office last month.
Unlike some other agencies, DHEC says the public has no right to see who walked through its doors Sept. 27. That is the day the agency’s governing board interviewed candidates for the director’s position, vacated by Catherine Heigel more than 15 months ago.
The State sought a copy of the agency’s sign-in sheet for Sept. 27 to determine who DHEC is considering for the job. But DHEC said releasing the names of those who visited the department’s office would be an invasion of their personal privacy.
Jay Bender — an attorney who represents newspapers on free-press issues, including The State — said the department’s interpretation of the state’s Freedom of Information Act is wrong and doesn’t comply with the spirit of open government.
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“I don’t think there’s anything that would allow that information to be confidential,’’ said Bender. “You’re signing in to go into a public agency. I can’t imagine how that would be confidential.’’
By law, DHEC must release the names of finalists for the director’s position. At one point, the agency had more than 100 applicants for the post, but it has narrowed that to a handful of candidates.
DHEC spokesman Tommy Crosby said state law allows his agency to exempt information that would be “an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy.’’
“The sign-in sheet you requested contains the names of citizens who visited DHEC for a variety of reasons, some of which may be personal in nature,’’ Crosby said in an email. “Therefore, the department redacted the names on the sheet.’’
DHEC — one of the state’s largest departments, with about 3,500 employees — does business with contractors, lawyers, consultants, business people, journalists and an array of others. By practice, the department has visitors doing business at the agency sign in at the front desk.
Some other agencies follow the same practice of requiring guests to sign in. Santee Cooper, the state-owned utility, released the names of visitors to its Moncks Corner office last year after The State requested copies of the department’s sign-in sheet.
Bender said DHEC isn’t being forthcoming with the public.
“That is what public bodies do. They try to hide everything,’’ Bender said.
DHEC has been without a permanent director since Heigel left in July 2017. David Wilson, a longtime agency regulator, has been running the department as an interim director. The agency has refused to say if any candidates from within the agency are seeking the job.
Some say Wilson has done a good job, keeping the agency on course. But DHEC faces many challenges that wont’ be resolved until it has a new leader.
The department, among other things, has a shortage of public-health nurses that needs to be addressed. It also needs to resolve multiple environmental issues, including whether to strengthen dam-safety regulations in the aftermath of multiple dam failures in recent years, said state Rep. Murrell Smith, a Sumter Republican who chairs a committee that oversees DHEC’s budget.
Straight-ticket option tempts increasingly partisan S.C. voters
As S.C. residents head to the polls next week, recent history shows at least half of them already have made up their minds about the candidates — even if they don’t know who’s running in any particular race.
A majority of South Carolinians voted a straight-party ticket two years ago.
State voter data shows 50.4 percent of voters in 2016 pressed one button and voted for all Democrats, all Republicans or all of a half-dozen other parties’ candidates — regardless of who those parties’ candidates were.
That’s the highest level of straight-ticket voting in state Election Commission numbers going back 10 years.
Not that previous years were much more bipartisan. In 2012, 48.4 percent of S.C. voters opted for a straight-party ticket, and 49.5 percent voted straight-party in 2014.
However, the state’s major parties seem to be moving in opposite directions in terms of straight-ticket voting.
S.C. Democrats received 46.6. percent of their votes from straight-party ballots in 2016, down from 50.8 percent in 2006. Palmetto State Republicans, on the other hand, voted 49.5 percent straight-party in 2016, up from 43.9 percent in 2006.
The top of every S.C. ballot gives voters the chance to vote for the party line, rather than for individual candidates in each race. One touch casts a vote for every party nominee running for any office.
Straight-ticket voting might be convenient for ardent party members, but critics say the option encourages partisanship and makes individual races less competitive.
However, the numbers don’t take into account voters who punched a straight-party ticket and then changed their vote to a different candidate in an individual race, said S.C. Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire. .
South Carolina is one of nine states that allows straight-ticket voting, The State reported in 2016. Since 1994, 11 states have banned straight-party voting.