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Editorial: DHEC went out of its way to keep public in the dark. Legislature must stop this.

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Rick Toomey resigns (copy) (copy)

Rick Toomey, right, submitted his resignation as director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control during a May board meeting, which he attended in person along with Marshall Taylor, left, who was named acting director, and DHEC Chairman Mark Elam. Mr. Toomey was serving on the board when his fellow members hired him to run the agency in 2018. File/Seanna Adcox/Staff 

It’s no mystery why S.C. law requires governing boards to release the names of at least three finalists for top jobs: It gives the public a chance to vet the candidates and provide the boards with information they might not otherwise have, in order to make the best selection.

Some state and local boards and councils embrace the requirement and would release names, bios and other information even if they weren’t required to; they recognize they can reach a better decision if they know more about a candidate than a search firm provides them.

Some ignore the law, unfortunately without consequence.

And then there’s the Department of Health and Environmental Control, a well-lawyered state agency that knows it has to comply with the law but has no intention of letting the public interfere with its decisions, so it complies with the law only technically (if that).

Six years ago, DHEC Director Catherine Templeton agreed to keep her departure plans quiet until the board could find a replacement — and offer the job to Eleanor Kitzman without even interviewing anyone else; the folly of that decision was exposed when Ms. Kitzman was forced to withdraw just days later.

Two years ago, the DHEC board spent 17 months searching for a director, at one point interviewing several (unnamed) candidates and then reopening the search, before it hired one of its own members, Rick Toomey, and only then released the names, with no accompanying information, of five other people it claimed were finalists.

Last week, the DHEC board technically complied with the law when it released the names of three finalists just minutes before sequestering itself into a secret meeting. It then emerged and selected Dr. Edward Simmer to run the state’s most complex and, at this moment, critical agency.

On paper at least, Dr. Simmer appears to be an excellent choice: The psychiatrist with a master’s degree in epidemiology, who is retiring Thursday as a Navy Medical Corps captain, spent the past six years overseeing operations for Tricare, a massive health care system that provides medical and dental care for 9.5 million active-duty and retired service members and their families. He also has served as commanding officer at the Navy hospital in Oak Harbor, Wash., and executive officer at the Navy hospital in Beaufort.

Although he has no environmental experience, the whole idea behind combining health and the environment in one state agency was that the public health can be deeply affected by the environment, so an M.D. might be the best single qualification for the job.

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There’s no question that Dr. Simmer appears to be a far better choice than the two other finalists — a lawyer with experience suing drug companies and a lobbyist and political aide who served a stint as director of Nebraska’s Medicaid division. Unfortunately, the two most recent searches suggest that the DHEC board believes that any smart professional with the right political pedigree can run a highly technical state agency — which is only a little less troubling than the legislative attitude that service in the Legislature is the only qualification people need to run state agencies.

But even if he turns out to be as good a fit as he looks on paper, that doesn’t excuse the selection process. Releasing the names earlier, as state law clearly intends and as any board that wants to actually serve the public does, would have allowed us to ask whether Keith Munson and Matthew Van Patton truly were the second and third best of the 83 candidates who applied for the job — or whether there were stronger candidates who didn’t make the cut because someone was stacking the deck.

It also would have provided time for a public review of Dr. Simmer’s record, which might have demonstrated that he’s every bit as good a choice as he seems, or might have turned up problems that are easy to gloss over with a well-crafted resume and top interviewing skills.

State senators have to sign off on the appointment, and they seem determined to give him the sort of public review that the DHEC board refused to allow. But by refusing to allow that process to occur while there still were multiple candidates and while it was still easy to go back to the larger pool of candidates, the DHEC board has shifted the question from “help us determine the best candidate” to “prove that he’s not qualified.” All against the backdrop of a public health agency that is struggling without a permanent director in the midst of a pandemic.

Senators should be deeply offended by the shoddy way the DHEC board is treating them, and the public. They shouldn’t punish Dr. Simmer for DHEC’s insult, but they also shouldn’t allow DHEC to pressure them into glossing over any concerns that arise.

And they should respond to this latest insult by putting some more detail into the public vetting law. They could start with requiring agencies to release the list of finalists a week before a vote, and then add in some creative ways to enforce that requirement.

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