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DHEC director quits amid speculation about run for office

Catherine Templeton’s sometimes stormy but always eventful tenure as the state’s environmental and health chief ended Thursday with her resignation after less than three years at the much-criticized agency.

Templeton, a former union-fighting lawyer and state labor department chief, made her announcement near the end of a lengthy Department of Health and Environmental Control board meeting in Columbia. Upon offering her resignation, which is effective Monday, she quickly exited the meeting.

Templeton‘s decision to quit came as no surprise to close associates. She consistently has said she did not want to make running DHEC a career job. She hinted Thursday that she had another public service job in mind, but did not elaborate at the meeting and did not return telephone calls to The State newspaper.

The 44-year-old Templeton is widely speculated to be a future candidate for political office, possibly as a GOP contender for Republican Congressman Mark Sanford’s seat in the Charleston area. A lawyer who lives in Mount Pleasant, she has been mentioned as a possible candidate for a judgeship.

DHEC board member Clarence Batts said Templeton did not tell him what her plans are, but “she’d be good at whatever she decides to do.”

Lewis Gossett, president of the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance, said Templeton should have plenty of opportunities for a new job.

“More people are interested in her future than I have seen in anyone in a long time,” Gossett said. “She has the skills to do a lot of things out there.”

The DHEC board picked Templeton after Gov. Nikki Haley pushed for her to apply for the $162,000-per-year director’s job late in 2011. Templeton, a 1989 Irmo High School graduate, took the post in March 2012, replacing longtime DHEC chief Earl Hunter, who resigned several months earlier. Templeton led the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation for one year before she took over at DHEC.

“When Gov. Haley pulled me from the private sector, I promised her four years of public service, and I have fulfilled my commitment,” Templeton said in a statement released by the agency. “I’m looking forward to serving the state from a different position.”

It was not clear Thursday if the DHEC board would look at in-house candidates to replace Templeton or when it hoped to name a successor. Health director Jamie Shuster declined comment when asked if she was interested in the job. Coastal division director Sara Bazemore said she was happy working in Charleston, where that division of DHEC is located. Environmental chief Elizabeth Dieck was not available for comment.

The agency, one of the largest in South Carolina, has a range of responsibilities, from regulating tattoo parlors and certifying hospital expansions to issuing air pollution permits and enforcing environmental laws. It has about 3,500 employees in Columbia and across the state.

Templeton, who recently was recognized by the state Manufacturers’ Alliance as a friend to manufacturing, was widely praised by businesspeople for a willingness to trim regulations and process environmental permits more quickly. Her time at DHEC was marked with a mixture of high-profile successes, several notable failures and often controversial personnel decisions.

Soon after taking office, she began firing staff members and pushing others to retire in her quest to reform what many agree was a stodgy, lethargic agency. But some of the moves drew heavy criticism. Among the first staff members fired was a lower-level coastal division employee who was seven months pregnant and another worker whose husband was unemployed. At about the same time, she spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a team of close associates she recruited to work at DHEC.

She also ran into trouble in her second year after DHEC botched a tuberculosis investigation in Greenwood County, which prompted a Senate hearing and plenty of pointed questions. The agency knew for more than two months that a school employee in the town of Ninety Six had tuberculosis, but did not inform parents until late May of 2013. Tests later found more than 50 schoolchildren were positive for tuberculosis.

Templeton said she worked to notify parents as soon as she learned about the tuberculosis threat on May 20, 2013 and she fired several DHEC workers in Greenwood County who she said had been slow to respond.

But in the Senate hearing, she conceded knowing about a DHEC tuberculosis probe in Greenwood County before May 20. Records also later indicated that Shuster, one of her closest advisers, learned of the tuberculosis problem in mid-April of that year.

More recently, Templeton raised eyebrows for forcing a respected consulting firm to resign as overseer of a toxic waste dump along Lake Marion. She said the company was spending too much money, but a company official said Templeton was not aggressive enough in trying to prevent contamination from polluting the lake. It recommended more aggressive action to protect the lake.

Lynn Bailey, a health care economist who has clashed with DHEC, said employees at the agency have become fearful for their jobs.

“She left the agency in chaos and with the lowest staff morale I’ve ever seen,” Bailey said.

Despite those low points, Templeton has been praised for initiatives to fight obesity in South Carolina and for aggressively attacking several high-profile pollution issues, including a contaminated site in Columbia’s Rosewood community and a sewage dump in southern Lexington County.

In an unusual move for DHEC, the agency proposed denying a permit for the sewage dump, which resulted in its closing – a decision that brought praise from many people who complained of foul odors from the disposal site in Pelion. She also has fought to clean up the Savannah River Site nuclear complex.

More recently, environmentalists backed Templeton’s defense of DHEC staff members, who issued a record $750,000 fine against a condominium complex that built an illegal seawall in Charleston County.

Perhaps Templeton’s biggest accomplishment was shaking up an agency that had long been criticized for failing to aggressively protect public health and the environment. Although results were mixed, she was quick to step away from normal procedures to see that certain issues were addressed.

“I can’t, personally, thank you enough,” board chairman Allen Amsler told Templeton at the meeting. “I think everybody would agree the agency is much better off today than it was three years ago.”

Sierra Club lawyer Bob Guild and Ann Timberlake, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said Templeton never seemed committed to the agency’s mission, but she had some success and was, usually, available to discuss matters with them.

Former director Hunter, a one-time DHEC lobbyist, focused more on keeping relations smooth with the Legislature.

“I feel like Catherine kind of rose above the framework of being a lobbyist at the Statehouse,” Timberlake said, adding that “she was always very accessible.”