DDSN

The board that oversees the SC Department of Disabilities and Special Needs doesn't have enough members to do business, after three departures this summer.

The Department of Disabilities and Special Needs has a difficult mission: helping South Carolinians with intellectual disabilities, autism, and brain and spinal injuries. And in recent years, it’s had a hard time meeting that mission, as several local boards overcharged hundreds of vulnerable adults to live in group homes and the agency failed to provide adequate oversight of a private company it contracted to provide housing and services.

So it’s not exactly the sort of agency you’d want operating on autopilot.

But that’s what’s happening now. One of the seven seats on the board charged with overseeing the agency has been vacant since last year, two board members either resigned or were nudged out this summer, and a third resigned in August, citing difficulty getting along with the director and chairman. That, as The Post and Courier’s Lauren Sausser reports, has left the board unable to take any actions.

Chairman Gary Lemel told Ms. Sausser the agency is still providing services as it should; the vacancies just affect “our ability to provide oversight and policy guidance to the executive director.”

That’s a pretty big deal, particularly with a new director. In fact, one could argue it’s a crucial missing element.

State law lets the governor make interim appointments while the Legislature is out of session, but Gov. Henry McMaster has agreed not to make any this year while he tries to work through a dispute with the Senate over how they are handled. The mess at Disabilities and Special Needs demonstrates why it’s so important for both sides to work in good faith to reach an agreement.

But there’s an even bigger problem here. Even without that dispute, there’s no guarantee that board members could be replaced quickly because of the sheer number of appointments governors must make.

In addition to directors of a couple of dozen state agencies, governors appoint part-time commissioners to serve on 950 state and local agencies. They range from the powerful and extremely sensitive (think DHEC, the Ethics Commission, Santee Cooper) to the obscure (Board of Barber Examiners, Prisoner of War Commission, Small Business Regulatory Review Committee) and boards the state shouldn’t have anything to do with, such as county recreation commissions and local airport commissions, which are funded (if at all) by counties, not the state.

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If you figure an average of seven members per board, that comes to 6,650 appointments — before you add in 300 magistrates, who are selected by state senators but technically appointed by the governor. No wonder so many people serve in holdover positions, years after their terms expire — a practice that sometimes violates the law and, for appointees who can’t be removed unless they break the law, gives governors the equivalent of at-will removal authority.

With the exception of local positions, the problem isn’t that the governor is the person making all these appointments; governors, after all, are supposed to run the executive branch of government. The problem is that we have all these positions to fill.

There are some cases where it makes sense to have part-time, appointed boards overseeing state agencies. Those are the rare exceptions. Our laws should reflect that, replacing most boards appointed by the governor with directors appointed by the governor.

That wouldn’t eliminate the managerial nightmare, which is why we also need to get governors and legislators out of the business of appointing local boards, and greatly reduce the number of individual state agencies. But just getting rid of boards would give the governor a lot more time to focus on each agency, rather than being in a constant scramble just to find bodies to fill seats.