The state's health and environmental permitting agency is poised to get a pro-business Lowcountry lawyer as its new leader.
Catherine Templeton was selected Wednesday as the head of S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control by the agency's board.
Templeton, 41, of Mount Pleasant, is an attorney who has specialized in "union avoidance" in private practice and represented businesses in employee lawsuits. She is the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation director, appointed last year by Gov. Nikki Haley, who has pushed for easing regulations on businesses.
Haley and the S.C. Senate must sign off on Templeton. She is expected to start Feb. 1.
She takes over as commissioner of an agency that may be the state's most unwieldy -- deciding permits for everything from hospital beds to industrial air emissions and waste disposal. Its lengthy, complex permitting system is criticized even by environmental and health advocates who push for tighter regulations.
"Everybody realizes what DHEC does is of critical importance to the state. But everybody, even people in the department, realizes it could be better run," said Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.
Templeton doesn't pull her punches. She has drawn controversy over LLR decisions from laying off workers to not moving to Columbia when she took the job. She said this week about her management, "When you go in and clean house, and you have to terminate 50 or 100 people, people don't like that. But we got better and got cheaper at the same time."
She was sued by a machinists' union during the Boeing labor dispute last year for saying, "Let me be very clear ... this is an anti-union administration. We don't want Boeing or anybody else to introduce extra bureaucracy into the administration." The suit was dismissed.
After she interviewed Templeton for the LLR position last year, Haley said it felt like she was interviewing herself.
The governor didn't ask her to apply for the DHEC job, Templeton said, but she wouldn't have done it without her approval. The DHEC board that hired Templeton also has been largely appointed by Haley.
She was voted as director over Pam Dukes, a DHEC deputy commissioner, and Ingo Angermeier, a Spartanburg hospital system chief executive. Templeton listed no background in health or environmental science on her application.
She won't talk policy until she has a chance to review DHEC operations, she said. Her approach will be the same as when she took over a "gentlemen's agreement"-entrenched operation at LLR, she said. "The solution for me was easy: What does the law say?"
She calls the DHEC job a process geek's dream. Because the agency is so large, she said, she can look at bringing in economies of scale, eliminating redundancies, deciding whether some programs should be split off to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, and taking a new look at the bigger picture of just what DHEC should or shouldn't be doing.
That raises concerns among a number of people. John Crangle of Common Cause of South Carolina, a public interest watchdog, called her hiring bizarre, given her background and worrisome for DHEC's regulatory authority.
He pointed out that the DHEC board earlier this month reversed a staff decision and approved the controversial Savannah River dredging project, after Haley asked her appointees to meet with Georgia officials.
"With a person like Catherine Templeton as director, there will be more of the same. She'll probably do what she's told to do and not what's good for the people of South Carolina," Crangle said.
But it says something about Templeton that when she considered applying for the DHEC job, one of the calls she made was to Beach, the environmentalist. She didn't talk policy, he said. She asked for his take on "basic, logistical questions about how the agency could operate," he said, including pros and cons of splitting off some duties to DNR.
"I was impressed," Beach said. The agency can improve its efficiency, including with how permits are handled, to the benefit of both the environment and the community, he said. "I know it can be done. I'm hoping she's the person to do it."
A mother of three, Templeton makes no bones about not having moved to Columbia. She won't do it for this job either.
"We're at 2012. People can do their job from anywhere. I have never been accused of a poor work ethic. I couldn't do any more sitting in an office in Columbia. When I'm needed, I'm there," she said.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at @bopete.