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Arrogance, secrecy at DHEC

The board of directors of the state’s largest, and perhaps most vital regulatory agency, the Department of Health and Environmental Control announced it had selected a fellow board member to be the agency’s new director.

The selection of board member of Richard “Rick” Toomey came on the heels of a search lasting 13 months in which the search firm, Find Great People, was unable to identify a candidate satisfactory to the board. Notwithstanding that failed search, and the insider hiring of Toomey, the search firm will be paid 20 percent of Toomey’s $178,126 salary for its work.

A review of DHEC meeting agendas and minutes reveals that the decision to hire Toomey was conducted in violation of South Carolina law, and disregarded entirely the public interest in commenting on the candidates under consideration in advance of the hiring decision.

State law required DHEC to provide copies of all materials collected during the search regarding persons in the group of applicants from which the selection was made. A request was made by The State newspaper for such documents in early October. DHEC denied the request for records without stating a reason for the denial, and has yet to make the material collected regarding the individuals under final consideration available to the public. In both instances DHEC is violating a law the General Assembly determined to be “vital in a democratic society.”

A review of board meeting agendas and minutes during the period the board was winnowing the field of candidates indicates that no agenda item stated that the board was considering applicants for the position, and no minute entry revealed a public vote to narrow the field of candidates — both steps required by law.

In fact, the board minutes reveal a pattern of inadequate statements of the purposes of meetings closed to the public. The minutes reflect board meetings closed to the public to discuss “personnel” matters notwithstanding that word does not appear in the applicable law, and attorneys general have advised public officials for more than 30 years that an executive session described as being for a “personnel matter” is in violation of the law.

From its agendas and minutes, it appears DHEC has institutionalized its disregard for the law. Consistent with this culture of disregard for the law and the citizens of South Carolina, Mark Elam, chairman of the board, responding to criticism of the process followed by DHEC, said the public would have an opportunity to examine Toomey’s qualifications for the position during the state Senate confirmation process.

Any rational process utilized to identify the director of the state’s largest regulatory agency would disclose the names and qualifications of the candidates under final consideration far enough in advance of the decision to enable citizens to communicate with board members in support of or opposition to candidates.

Elam’s remarks, in the context of the unlawful process followed by DHEC, smacks of an elitism characteristic of South Carolina governance from colonial days. The people in charge, from plantation owners to mill owners to public officials, have said, “Trust us. We’ll make the right decision and let you know what the decision is.” Elam said once the confirmation process is complete, “everyone will be quite happy and satisfied with our selection.”

The obvious question, what if we’re not happy and satisfied with the selection of an insider when we haven’t had a chance to know the qualifications of the other applicants? In a democracy, citizens should have a meaningful opportunity to participate in the decision-making process prior to the decision being made. To conduct public business otherwise is arrogant, elitist and, in this instance, illegal.

Jay Bender

Korea: fearless forecasting

The French have two expressions that capture the essence of Kim Jong-un’s New Year address. First, there’s “deja vu” ― or maybe “deja vu all over again,” as the American baseball player Yogi Berra famously put it. And then there’s “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” ― “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The circumstances no doubt change from year to year, but we’ve seen this whole drama before: hopes crazily raised by nice words and gestures, then dashed on the rocks by North Korea’s refusal to live up to its promises. That’s how it seemed yet again as Kim on New Year’s Day called for the United States to give up sanctions and relieve the “pressure” ― a reference implicitly to nukes on U.S. ships and planes prowling the region.

Just because nothing much has really changed on the path to reconciliation does not mean North Korea-watchers — just about everyone — should stop making predictions, alternating between wishful thinking and forecasts of doom. This time of year, it’s appropriate to gaze into our crystal balls.

The fact that forecasts are wrong, off-key or dumb doesn’t matter since nobody six months or a year from now will remember them. Personally, I’ve been so surprised by the twists and turns of Korean history ever since the North Korean invasion of the South in June 1950 that I would not hazard a guess on what’s likely next month or the month after, much less by the end of the year.

Forecasts nowadays fall into two camps. More than a few soothsayers think the process of reconciliation, of dialogue and summitry, simply cannot work. I have seen any number of predictions of a return to the bad old days of nuclear and missile tests, threats and counter threats, rhetoric and reprisals and all the rest.

Then there’s the equally opinionated bunch that think those days are gone. OK, they concede, North Korea, or Kim, may not do everything as promised, but we won’t see more testing, more threats, real terrorism. These people are convinced the trend is toward lasting peace, maybe reunification, if not this year, then in the next few years.

Actually, I would not denounce either of these extremes as wrong or impossible. Maybe they’re both correct ― first rapprochement and reconciliation, then the holy hell of same old, same old conflict and confrontation. Or, maybe there’ll be conflict, then reconciliation.

Or we may be surprised by upheavals and revolts that fall into neither of the obvious categories. As often noted, no one predicted the Korean War. Nor did anyone predict last year’s expressions of goodwill leading to all those summits ― President Moon Jae-in and Kim, then President Donald Trump and Kim.

If those summits seemed the stuff of fantasy before they happened, what about reunification or at least confederation of the two Koreas? I have heard people saying, quite seriously, that North-South barriers will fall in the next few years, that mail, traffic, trade, reunions and tourism will resume before we know it.

Isn’t that what tearing down some of those guard posts on either side of the demilitarized zone was all about? And what could be more convincing than a train moving from South to North Korea carrying experts assessing the needs to get North-South rail traffic moving for the first time since before the Korean War?

Having heard all that talk before, though, I’ll believe it when I see it. It’s also possible that North-South agreements of peace, reconciliation and non-aggression could be nonsense. History is littered with lofty ideals expressed on paper only to be trampled on by those who wrote and signed them.

This year, 2019, is a year of anniversaries. It was 100 years ago in June that the combatants got together at Versailles and signed the treaty that ended “the Great War.” That war is now known as World War I ― the prelude to the much worse World War II that broke out 20 years later.

And, as every Korean knows, it was 100 years ago, as of March 1, that Koreans rose against Japan, the colonial overlord. The revolt was a short-lived, bloody, a tragedy memorialized as one of Korea’s most important holidays.

We can only pray, this time, the optimism engendered by last year’s summitry portends real peace ― not just another act in the long-running drama of high hopes and dismal failure.

Donald Kirk

Good call on return of coach

The college football world has its eyes on South Carolina with the national championship won by Clemson. Yet even as the Tigers’ paw flag flew atop the Statehouse on Tuesday, there was other big football news in the state.

South Carolina State University Athletic Director Stacy Danley and head coach Buddy Pough made the announcement that Pough would be returning for an 18th season at the helm of the program.

While not a surprise, the announcement a year ago this time could not have been predicted. After the Bulldogs’ worst season in 16 years under Pough, the coach stated that 2018 would be his last at the university. But things changed – for the better.

A young group of players had a surprisingly good season in 2018, finishing 5-6 after a 0-4 start, with a 4-3 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference record.

With as many as 15 freshmen or redshirt freshmen playing considerable roles for the Bulldogs throughout the season, Pough admitted in the postseason that he got more excited about continuing to coach the more he saw the young talent develop and players mesh as a team.

In late November, Pough went public with a stated desire to continue coaching the Bulldogs. Danley said at the time that he and Pough were evaluating the program and that an announcement would be forthcoming.

On Tuesday, the athletic director was as optimistic as Pough about the future.

"When I looked at the program, where we are today, and considered our current reality and what the head football coach at South Carolina State is required to do, there was no question to me that Coach Pough is the man for the job," Danley said.

Adding that he has more faith in Pough as the head coach than at any time during the athletic director’s tenture at S.C. State, Danley said, “Football is the cornerstone of our department because it is the biggest revenue generator. We expect to go to Atlanta and be there for the Celebration Bowl, we expect to win. But we understand that it takes the resources to win. So we want to give Coach Pough and his staff and his players the best chance to win. I'm proud of Coach Pough, his staff and his players for how they finished this past season. There was some adversity, so much so that, at times, I thought it was going to blow up. But it was his experience and expertise that not only did he handle it like a champion, but he used it to turn the team around and finish the season in an impressive way. I believe they gave us some much-needed momentum. I believe we are poised and prepared to build on that momentum."

That is exactly what Bulldog fans – and Orangeburg -- want to hear. And Buddy Pough at the helm is a major plus for the program and the community.

From a purely football standpoint, consider these facts:

• It took a full 16 seasons for every MEAC team to get at least one win against Pough's teams.

• Out of the 16 MEAC titles in program history, Pough has been a part of 14 as a Bulldog player, assistant coach or head coach.

• Pough is four wins away from passing his former coach, Willie Jeffries, as the all-time winningest coach in program history.

• Pough's teams have posted a 125-71 overall record at S.C. State, including a 97-35 record in MEAC play, where his teams have won two outright MEAC titles (2008 and 2009) and four shared MEAC titles (2004, 2010, 2013 and 2014).

Next on the agenda is a contract for Pough, who says he would like to coach for several more years. On Tuesday, Danley said it is yet to be determined whether Pough will receive another one-year pact or be signed on for multiple years. The latter, as we see it, would be better for a program relying on the youth it has on the present team and the players being recruited.

Pough has done a top-notch job of keeping the football program afloat during difficult fiscal times at the university. He is due an opportunity to complete the rebuilding process at S.C. State in the coming years. He is a respected coach with a proven track record and a solid recruiter. He is a winner.

Plus he is a great ambassador for the university and an integral player in the Orangeburg community.