Templeton a buzz saw at DHEC

Catherine Templeton is a Mount Pleasant mom who is director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Nobody is going to accuse Catherine Templeton of being shy.

Within two months of taking over the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, the commissioner has cut a swath through personnel and agency practices, raising hackles in the General Assembly.

She has made decisions that leave even some supporters shaking their heads. A state senator described her actions as “slash and burn,” and said he's worried about the long-term effectiveness of the agency.

The woman at the head of these firestorms is a little dismayed at them.

“I get into trouble because I'm honest,” she said.

“I think there's a lot of political innuendo out there about me, and that's not fair. I don't play by Columbia's rules.

“If you want to do a good job for the citizens of South Carolina, as opposed to what makes you happy when you walk through the Statehouse, you're going to take some heat for it.”

Templeton sits at her desk in the corner office she set up at DHEC's Ocean and Coastal Resource Management division headquarters in North Charleston. She chose that location to be close to her Mount Pleasant home and three children.

Templeton is a former anti-union lawyer picked by Gov. Nikki Haley last year to take over the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, a job she characterized as cleaning house.

Templeton doesn't pull her punches. She drew controversy over LLR decisions from laying off workers to not moving to Columbia when she took the job.

In that role, she said, “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.

Haley chose Templeton to replace Earl Hunter at DHEC. Hunter retired in February after more than 30 years with the agency.

Templeton is maybe the most active player in an administration looking to chop through state bureaucracy and regulations to create what Haley has called a business-friendly environment.

DHEC might be the state's most unwieldy agency — 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.

Templeton's first DHEC layoffs were nine support staff in the OCRM office. Some environmentalists worry that the cuts will slow the cumbersome OCRM permitting process even further, forcing staff to be more lenient with permit applications.

“It's hard not to be concerned for the agency's ability to do its job,” said Amy Armstrong, South Carolina Environmental Law Project president.

“This is a coastal agency that is here, from our point of view, to protect the environment, and from the business point of view, to issue permits. Everybody loses when positions are cut,” she said.

Sen. Phil Leventis, a Sumter Democrat, said Templeton “continues to slash and burn personnel-wise, which she said she wouldn't do.

“The real proof in the pudding will be how things look in South Carolina 20 years from now. She'll be gone, and her policies could have adverse effects.”

Templeton ardently defends the cuts, saying she didn't cut program or permitting jobs, but redundant staff whose work has been taken over by other staff.

“My job is to get the money to the program (staff), to get the citizens the services they need.”

In fact, the moves she has made at DHEC so far were all initially suggested by staff, she said.

Templeton videotaped a message to staff members asking them to email her with any concerns about how the agency is run.

She has received dozens of them, and still is getting six or seven per week, she said, from people who see better ways to do their jobs.

While laying off the nine staff members, Templeton created and hired three high-dollar executive positions, a move that exasperated anti-tax supporters who expected her to cut costs.

She hired the positions to tackle how-and-why issues that day-to-day staff cannot, she said, such as service duplication, legal liabilities and unnecessary requirements that slow up permitting.

“This is an agency that hasn't had a critical self-analysis in 30 years,” Templeton said. “There are all kinds of things DHEC is doing because it's always done them.

“The law doesn't require them. Sometimes the law doesn't allow them. People talk about them, but nobody fixes them. I've spent money here, I've saved money over there. In the long term DHEC will be better for it.”

There's a disconnect between Templeton's hatchet reputation and her ardent, professional demeanor.

She appeared at a Senate hearing to answer questions about the staff layoffs and left her critics a little disarmed.

“If she believes there is a way to shrink the workforce and reduce waste, we certainly want to work with her. Some of us have concerns her decisions were made too quickly,” said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, one of her toughest critics.

In some ways, that disconnect defines Templeton. She is calm and poised, yet visibly uncomfortable having her photo taken.

Asked what her three children think of her job, she tears up a moment, then tells a story about them greeting her as she came home one night, placing a paper “Queen of DHEC” crown on her head and giving her a poster that said “We miss you.”

“I'm making all this hay about not leaving Charleston, but I know as well as anybody else I'm going to spend four or five days in Columbia. I knew I was going to be in a car. It is a state job,” she said.

“Truly, ‘window to my soul,' I don't have to do this. This is my four years of service to the state. I think I can make a difference, if I can get money, if I can get tools, if I can get support to the people who do the job.”