Former state Rep. Mike Pitts did the state a favor by withdrawing his name from consideration to head the S.C. Conservation Bank. The $115,000-a-year position as head of the vitally important agency should be as apolitical as possible, and taxpayers will be better served by the appointment of a conservation professional well-versed in making land deals rather than someone more suited to making political deals.
And, as former Gov. Nikki Haley correctly pointed out in a tweet: "South Carolina should get out of the practice of giving outgoing legislators government jobs. It does not move (the state) in the right direction to allow this to move forward. Hoping good government prevails."
The Conservation Bank has a had a fraught relationship with the legislature since a critical 2017 audit led to the resignation of its executive director and lawmakers stripped the bank of its dedicated source of funding from real estate fees.
The intent of Pitts' nomination for the job, according to Senate testimony, was to help heal the bank's rift with the legislature and to re-establish a dedicated source of funding for the bank. That might have been politically expedient because the Conservation Bank now relies on year-to-year funding through the legislature's budgeting process. But it could have also opened lawmakers to the appearance of impropriety.
Pitts, a former police officer and Laurens County councilman, wasn't necessarily the most qualified applicant for the job, one that requires experience in real estate, natural resources and land management. Lawmakers had passed over about 30 other applicants in favor of Pitts, who ultimately withdrew his nomination due to health concerns following two contentious Senate hearings.
The Legislature can now focus on finding the best-qualified applicant for the job, preferably someone with a background in land preservation and the protection of natural resources.
In Senate testimony, Pitts was taken to task for voting against a bill that would have prevented lawmakers from heading a state agency until they had been out of office for at least a year. This after the former Republican lawmaker recused himself from other votes related to the Conservation Bank. That put his nomination in an uneasy position. Plus, had Pitts been confirmed, he surely would have been viewed as susceptible to political pressure from his former colleagues, who now control the bank's appropriations.
The Conservation Bank deserves a leader committed to the agency's mission and as free as possible from political entanglements and the appearance of conflicts of interest.
Established in 2004, the Conservation Bank preserves land though publicly financed purchases and conservation easements. Examples include property surrounding the Angel Oak on Johns Island and land on Morris Island and in the ACE Basin — about 300,000 acres in total.
It was unfortunate that Pitts resigned his seat last year so he could be considered for the job and then suffered a heart attack, but he was right to withdraw his nomination for his own sake and that of the Conservation Bank's future.
Certainly, there are other willing and able conservation professionals capable of both furthering the Conservation Bank's important mission and healing its relationship with the Legislature.
This editorial is from The Post and Courier of Charleston via The Associated Press.