Back when we did our "Power Failure" series about the problems with the way government is structured in South Carolina, one of the most influential opponents of going to a Cabinet system was the late Michael Jarrett, the highly respected commissioner of DHEC.
When the Legislature passed restructuring legislation that put some of the executive branch under control of the elected chief executive, DHEC was one of the larger agencies that lawmakers pointedly left out of the Cabinet.
The following is a story we ran as part of our series, in which Mr. Jarrett presented his arguments against gubernatorial control of his agency.
I had remembered this story and searched for it in our database so I could link to it in my Sunday column, in which I mentioned Mr. Jarrett's opposition to restructuring. I had forgotten the long correction that we later ran, which was in keeping with our archiving procedures attached to the file in our database:
DHEC CHIEF WARNS OF POLITICKING, FRAGMENTATION
Published on: 12/15/1991
By LEVONA PAGE, Senior Writer
Memo: POWER FAILURE: The Government That Answers to No One
Sixteenth in a series
Mike Jarrett, commissioner of the Department of Health and Environmental Control, said Monday his agency was not pressured by the office of former Gov. Dick Riley to deny a permit for the Union Camp paper mill, as he said in a story Sunday in The State. After checking with DHEC staff about his earlier comments, Jarrett said, "I think that was overstated from what I can find out now." He said that after the paper mill permit became controversial, Riley's staff called his agency to be sure that the permitting process was done properly and without haste so that it could not be challenged. "They were just calls expressing concern," Jarrett said. "The staff doesn't remember any undue pressure." Riley said Monday he and his staff strongly supported Union Camp, publicly and privately. "What we always said to DHEC was the governor supports this unless you can come up with a reason not to," Riley said. In a reference in the same story to a contact by the governor's office concerning a permit for a gold mine at Ridgeway, Jarrett said he was referring to the office of Gov. Carroll Campbell, not the Riley administration. DHEC issued the gold mine permit four months after Campbell took office. Campbell spokesman Tucker Eskew said the governor did not take sides in that controversy, but Eskew said, "There's nothing wrong with the governor's office contacting a state agency to express views. Such input at least is coming from an accountable, statewide elected official."
His opinion is likely to carry a lot of weight. He's been around since 1964, climbing to his present job as commissioner of the Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Also, most people who know Jarrett know he's not concerned about protecting his job. A year ago, he learned he has terminal cancer.
From his unique perspective, Jarrett speaks freely, and he faults the proposed Cabinet system mainly on two points. First, he says it would put more politics into decision making. Second, he says the particular plan being discussed in South Carolina unnecessarily splits up some agencies and diverts their functions to other agencies.
If the governor is given more power, as a Cabinet system proposes, the chief executive will become more vulnerable to the voters' displeasure when things go wrong. That means state government will be forced to bow to every whim of popular political opinion, Jarrett said.
"A governor has to be interested in politics and popularity, and agencies can't be run on the basis of popular decisions," he said.
DHEC has had some experience with political pressure from the governor's office, Jarrett said. He cited two examples, both during former Gov. Dick Riley's administration.
The first occurred when residents became upset about Union Camp's plans to build a $485 million paper mill near Eastover.
"We had calls from the governor's staff not to permit," Jarrett said. "But what they (Union Camp) presented to us met the minimum standards of the law, and we permitted it.
"In retrospect, it has been a good decision, but had we been driven by the governor's office . . . that decision would not have been made the way it was."
Another example was the dispute over an $81 million gold mine at Ridgeway, which was opposed by some environmentalists.
"First, the governor's office called. 'What can you do to get the permit through? It's big business, and we need it.' We had a hearing process. While that was taking place, the public got opposed. Then we got a call from the same staff. 'Don't permit it.' But we had no choice. It met the criteria of the law, and we permitted it."
DHEC was able to shrug off the directives from the governor's office because the agency is governed by an independent board. Although all seven board members are governor's appointees, the terms are staggered, and the board usually is a mix of appointees by more than one governor.
Environmental permitting actions should be insulated from politics, Jarrett said.
Aside from the potential for political influence, Jarrett is strongly against the reorganization plan put forth by the governor's Commission on Government Restructuring.
Under the commission's plan, the major health delivery functions of DHEC would be given to a new Department of Health and Human Services. Those functions include preventive health services, maternal and child health, home health care and migrant services.
With the health delivery functions stripped away, the new Department of Health and Environmental Control would exist mainly as a regulatory and licensing agency. The department would monitor environmental quality and health care facilities.
Jarrett said the separation of health and environment is contrary to a recent study of the national Institute of Medicine and would not benefit the public. He said the commission's recommendation is driven by a desire to provide one-stop environmental permitting for industry.
DHEC is not the only agency whose functions would be split up. Others are the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism and the Department of Highways and Public Transportation.
Jarrett said he wouldn't u
se his influence to fight a Cabinet system of government if some changes were made in the restructuring commission's plan. "I will be strongly against separating health and environment," he said. "I don't think it is for the benefit of the public. It is for the benefit of industry at the expense of the public."