In an expected move pitting Gov. Mark Sanford against state lawmakers and business leaders alike, Sanford has vetoed legislation that would restructure the State Ports Authority and, among other provisions, strip him of the authority to remove board members at will.
Sanford, in his veto letter, said the bill "will do little to ensure that the SPA is a well-managed agency and will, in fact, only further entrench our state government in its antiquated structure of control by unelected, unresponsive and unaccountable boards and commissions."
Late last year the SPA's top customer, Danish shipping giant Maersk Line, announced plans to gradually depart Charleston, and then the agency's president and chief executive Bernard S. Groseclose Jr. resigned. Legislation to redirect the SPA followed shortly thereafter.
Sanford suggested that the bill would impede progress on a joint container terminal being developed with the Georgia Ports Authority in Jasper County by strengthening the power of any board members who are resistant to bringing in private capital.
He also pointed out the Senate's dismissal of an amendment proposed by Sen. Mike Rose, R-Summerville, that would have required SPA board members to document contact with public officials, including lawmakers.
"This suggests that while the Legislature is concerned about limiting the governor's role with regard to the SPA, some are perfectly content with the undue influence wielded behind the scenes from the Legislature," Sanford wrote.
Lawmakers will take up the bill again when they reconvene June 16. If the bill receives a two-thirds vote from the Senate and the House, it becomes law.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, sponsored the bill and said he worries about getting enough Senate votes with some members absent. He said the bill would face few obstacles in the House.
Although Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island proposed a different restructuring bill that would dissolve the board and make the executive director a member of the governor's cabinet, he supports the current bill for the changes it requires.
Those include specific qualifications for board members and term reductions from seven years to five, plus an oversight role for the state Transportation Department and the state Commerce Department.
"I don't know how to draw that line between (Sanford) wanting to engage in the philosophical debate and the realities of the fact that we have to run the state and we have to advance our economy," Merrill said.
"We can wring our hands forever when we haven't created one new job."
Otis Rawl, president of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, said board members would make bolder decisions if they didn't fear possible removal.
"I believe the bill is a little different than what's outlined in his veto message," Rawl said. "We believe the bill takes the politics out of the decision-making process and allows the port to act and react like a business."
SPA officials said little about the gubernatorial veto, just as they have remained mum during the months of legislative discussion.
"The bill contains a number of provisions impacting port governance and management, so the authority has been closely monitoring its progress," said SPA spokesman Byron Miller.
"The General Assembly created the ports authority to serve the state's maritime commerce interests. That's a legislated mission that the authority takes very seriously, so any changes or new requirements will be implemented thoroughly and aggressively."
Throughout the legislative process, the agency's search for a new chief executive continued. Ron Brinson, a port consultant and former president and chief executive of the American Association of Port Authorities, said a stalled bill reshaping the SPA could translate into a stalled search for a new leader.
"The SPA is working with an executive recruitment firm highly experienced in the maritime business," he said. "It is likely all the lingering issues have been well-explained to the candidates, and once governance is fully resolved, the recruitment project will likely move more quickly to completion."