The appointment of Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust Executive Director Raleigh West to run the S.C. Conservation Bank showed that our system for selecting state agency directors works. Sometimes.
The fact that the respected conservation professional and lawyer was initially passed over in favor of a member of the S.C. House who had no apparent qualifications for the job, and who might well have gotten the job if he had not bowed out under questioning from a single senator, suggests that when the system works, it works in spite of itself.
We need to make success less random, so we improve our chance of getting the best people running state agencies. That begins by understanding what the problem really is.
Sen. Dick Harpootlian, whose questions about Mr. Pitts’ qualifications and political views led to the now-former legislator’s decision to withdraw from consideration, thinks the problem is legislators getting appointed to state jobs. So he introduced S.619, which requires legislators to sit out for a year before they or their close relatives can be appointed to positions that require Senate confirmation.
That certainly would have prevented Mike Pitts’ appointment. And it would prevent other lawmakers from being appointed to the handful of positions that require Senate confirmation. It also is in keeping with the smart rules that require a similar waiting period before the Legislature can elect former legislators to judgeships or the Public Service Commission, and with revolving-door policies that prevent elected officials and regular state employees from being hired as lobbyists or by private businesses they used to regulate.
But the problem isn’t legislators getting appointed to run state agencies. It’s why they’re appointed, and whether we can hold anyone accountable if they shouldn’t have been appointed.
S.619 suggests that legislators are reluctant to oppose a colleague for an executive branch position, either because they like that colleague or because they fear that colleague could retaliate if rejected. And that’s sometimes the case.
The Pitts appointment reminded us of an even bigger problem: state agencies are tempted to hire legislators in an effort to influence how the Legislature treats those agencies — regardless of whether the legislators bring any skills to the particular job.
That desire also gets at why individual legislators are sometimes able to meddle in the decisions at state agencies — exercising the sort of power, on a small scale, that only the Legislature as a whole should have.
When state agencies are run by part-time boards and commissions, there’s no one of significant standing to run interference when individual legislators try to meddle in their decision-making. That makes it logical for the board to conclude that its best bet for survival is to hire a legislator.
The best way to keep part-time board members from thinking they need a former legislator to protect them from the whims of individual legislators, or the Legislature as a whole, would be to give the governor more control over agencies in the executive branch of government.