DHEC wants to keep di­rec­tor can­di­dates se­cret

The Island Packet (Sunday) - - Local - BY BRIS­TOW MARCHANT AND SAMMY FRETWELL bmarchant@thes­tate.com sfretwell@thes­tate.com

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.

“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 chal- lenges 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.


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 straightticket 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.

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