Three years after taking the top job at the state's largest, unwieldiest agency, Catherine Templeton resigned Thursday as director of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Her replacement has not been named. A new director must be approved by the DHEC board and the state Senate.
"We greatly appreciate your three years with us, Catherine," DHEC Board Chairman Allen Amsler told her before the group officially accepted her resignation at a meeting in Columbia. "The agency is much better off today than it was three years ago."
The board gave her a standing ovation.
Before joining DHEC, Templeton served one year in Gov. Nikki Haley's cabinet as director of the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. She previously practiced law. At both state agencies, Templeton earned a reputation for saving money and reducing staff. She told Haley at the time of her appointment to the labor department that she would make a four-year commitment to the administration.
On Thursday, she said she had fulfilled that promise. "I'm looking forward to serving the state from a different position," she said in a prepared statement. Her resignation is effective Monday.
"Catherine Templeton has shown great leadership, and we are grateful for her service," Haley said through a spokeswoman.
Templeton, who lives in Mount Pleasant, told The Post and Courier that she has not planned her next career move, but political insiders speculate she may be considering a future campaign.
"I think she's certainly someone to watch over the next year or so and her actions will be a signal to what her intentions are," said Kendra Stewart, a College of Charleston political scientist. "I think this is the time in which potential candidates start to test the field. You can do it now safely without much commitment."
Haley briefly considered Templeton among a short list of candidates to replace former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint when he resigned in 2012. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who ultimately was appointed to DeMint's seat, said in a statement, "Losing (Templeton's) service is a loss for every part of this state, but the Lowcountry sure will celebrate having her back."
Templeton's tenure at DHEC occasionally was fraught with controversy, particularly for the way she handled a tuberculosis outbreak in Greenwood County two years ago. Hundreds of elementary school students were screened for the contagious bacterial infection months after a school janitor tested positive. Templeton maintains it was the school district's responsibility, not the health department's, to contact parents about their children's potential exposure.
She also drew criticism from the health care industry for temporarily suspending a program called "Certificate of Need," which regulates the number of hospital beds and costly medical equipment across the state. At the time, Templeton contended that she could not enforce the regulation because Haley had vetoed funding for it. The state Supreme Court ruled last year that it must be enforced, with or without money in the budget.
On the environmental side of the house, Templeton was credited for a quick, proactive response in 2013 to illegal dumping of cancer-causing PCBs in sewers in the Upstate and Columbia.
In 2014, DHEC issued a steep $760,000 fine, which later was reduced, after inspectors found an illegal seawall hidden under sandbags at Ocean Club Villas in the Wild Dunes resort on Isle of Palms.
The immediate fine was a stark departure from the department's usual approach of working with permit violators. Templeton called the wall "a rare case in this agency where people are openly dismissive of the law."
In three years, she also spearheaded a new statewide obesity initiative, coordinated plans to prepare South Carolina for a potential Ebola outbreak and has advocated splitting DHEC - a $600 million, 3,500-employee agency - to separate its health and environmental functions.
Her departure will be the latest in a string of high-profile changes among state leadership. Since November, Haley has named new leaders to the Department of Social Services, the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Juvenile Justice. She also appointed a new chief of staff.
DHEC is not a Cabinet agency. It's governed by its own board, the chairman of which is appointed by the governor. The department is responsible for enforcing a wide range of rules, ranging from nursing home regulations and restaurant inspections to water pollution management and beach erosion.
Post and Courier Reporter Bo Petersen contributed to this article. Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.