As of July, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley had yet to make new appointments for nearly 600 positions on state boards and commissions throughout the Palmetto State. Those seats were either vacant or filled by someone in a holdover status whose term had already expired.

The numbers come from the S.C. Secretary of State and are the most recent available figures. In practical terms, these numbers can represent hundreds of empty seats in boardroom meetings or positions currently being held by people who should have been replaced years ago.

Consider it South Carolina’s holdover government.

Those nearly 600 positions that were vacant or expired as of July require Haley’s action. For many of them, Haley can make a unilateral appointment; for others her appointee must be cleared by lawmakers. A few years ago, the General Assembly made it so the governor could appoint more positions without having to go through lawmakers first in order to streamline the process. The governor’s office did not respond to e-mails or phone calls about the issue by press time. Haley’s office provides a phone number to call for those interested in a position. That number’s voicemail was full as of Sept. 12.

“These boards and commissions provide important advisory, regulatory, and policy-making services as part of South Carolina’s government,” reads a statement from Haley on the governor’s office website. “Service on boards and commissions allows citizens the opportunity to improve the quality of life and positively impact the future of South Carolina.”

At least one former staffer for a gubernatorial administration in South Carolina expressed surprise at the number of vacancies and holdovers. Back in the early 2000s, John Clark oversaw the process of filling such positions as deputy chief of staff of external affairs to former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges.

“My God,” he said over the phone recently when told of the nearly 600 vacancies and holdovers of gubernatorial appointees as of July. “That’s a very high number.”

Clark says he doubts the number of unfilled positions ever climbed higher than two or three dozen once his office got a handle on them after taking over from the Beasley administration. A full-time staffer oversaw the task with help from others in the office. They created a database to keep track of expired terms, and recruited people to fill them.

“I cannot recall an instance where we knowingly let anyone sit there in holdover status,” Clark says.

John Crangle, who runs the government watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina, says the high numbers are a reflection of a governor not doing her job.

“She spends too much time prancing around on the national stage than doing the grunt work of being governor,” he says.

While Haley’s office didn’t respond for this story, a former top aide in the administration of Republican Gov. Mark Sanford who was close to the process of filling gubernatorial appointments, defended Haley on the issue.

“I don’t think it’s a reflection of the Haley administration,” says Sanford’s ex-communications director Joel Sawyer. “I think it’s a reflection of the completely antiquated structure in state government that has even this many fairly meaningless boards and commissions to fill.”

There are more than 250 different boards and commissions scattered throughout the bureaucratic layers of state government. Each of them has several members, depending on the panel. The individual positions number in the thousands.

The nearly 600 positions that Haley has yet to appoint touch almost every aspect of American life. They range from agriculture, healthcare, education and the arts, to college boards, real estate boards, social work commissions and tourism boards. There are ones that deal with war veterans, wildlife issues, disabilities, and energy policy, among others. 

Sawyer said that once an administration gets past filling positions on important boards — the state utility Santee Cooper, for instance, or the State Ports Authority, Department of Natural Resources or Department of Health and Environmental Control — it’s a tall order just finding qualified people willing to serve.

“The sad reality is that half the people who want to do it, you don’t want doing it,” he says.

Term limits on these entities vary anywhere from one to six years and are often staggered to protect institutional knowledge and to guard against concentrated political influence. A term on the Commission for the Blind, for instance, is four years. That entity, which provides rehabilitation services for blind people and oversees the maintenance of vending machines at rest stops on interstates, among other things, had five holdovers or vacancies as of July. The term for someone serving on the State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, which had seven vacancies or holdovers, is six years.

Some of the seats are for positions at high-profile institutions with household names like Santee Cooper. Others are more obscure. For instance, there were eight vacancies or holdovers on something called the War Between the States Heritage Trust Advisory Board. It’s probably safe to say that a vacant position on that board wouldn’t bring South Carolina to a grinding halt.

The nearly 600 vacancies and holdovers as of this July aren’t that far off from May of last year, according to a 2012 report in The Nerve, the investigative newsroom of the limited-government South Carolina Policy Council. The “vast majority” of the more than 600 unfilled positions or lapsed terms were those appointed by the governor, The Nerve reported then.

South Carolina is known as a legislative state with a relatively weak governorship. But Clark says he often reminds people who bring that up that a governor’s ability to put qualified people in the hundreds of positions on these boards is an example of where the state’s chief executive can have real influence.

“We saw it as an opportunity for good government,” he says.

Vacancies and holdovers at State Ethics Commission illustrate problem

One state agency, the State Ethics Commission, is stacked entirely with commissioners whose terms have expired. But those are just the live bodies. During agency meetings there are four empty seats, according to the number of vacancies listed on its website.

The State Ethics Commission is the agency in charge of investigating and enforcing the ethical behavior of statewide constitutional officeholders, like the governor, and also local public officials such as sheriffs and local city councils. Last month, Haley was forced to pay a $3,500 fine and donate $5,000 to a children’s charity for not keeping the proper addresses of her campaign donors. The agency investigated Haley after receiving a formal complaint. It took 14 months to resolve the issue, and e-mails later surfaced that showed the Ethics Commission’s director, Herb Hayden, suggested to Haley’s attorneys ways in which the governor might help herself look better in the process.

“I know your concerns with possible political repercussions, and to offset that I would suggest that you might want to add some language in the discussion that in view of the Governor’s concern with ethics reform and transparency, by paying the fine and donating the anonymous contributions to the Children’s Trust Fund, she is setting an example for all others to follow,” Hayden had written. “That would keep anyone from accusing her of being hypocritical, and preaching reform while expecting preferential treatment for herself.”

Hayden says he wasn’t offering the governor free political or public relations advice, but merely trying to get her to settle the charges because her lawyers had dragged the case on for so long. But Chris Kenney, a lawyer for the Democratic Party staffer who had filed the original complaint, said Hayden’s conduct was inappropriate.

“The State Ethics Commission works for the offenders and Herb Hayden should be fired,” Kenney says. He pointed out that Hayden’s job is in the hands of the commissioners and all of them are holdovers, meaning Haley can replace them each at will. In other words, director Hayden’s job could depend on whoever Haley wanted to appoint should she choose to wipe out the commissioners and replace them with her own people.

The issue blew up again just this week.

An editorial in The State newspaper Sept. 10 raised questions about how the State Ethics Commission’s director Hayden handled a response about Haley’s June trip to North Carolina in a state vehicle carrying campaign aides that crashed into a pole at 10 mph. The minor car crash wasn’t much of a concern – it was that Haley and her campaign folks were using state resources to attend an event where Haley raised money. The State Ethics Commission’s attorney, Cathy Hazelwood, said Haley would have to reimburse the state because she can’t use state funds for campaign events. Hazelwood said she would be sending Haley a letter saying as much. But Hayden later undercut Hazelwood shortly after talking with Haley’s private attorneys. He made sure the letter was never sent.

“Since the governor has left seven members of the Ethics Commission in holdover status and the other two seats vacant, giving her the unusual power to replace them at a moment’s notice, we can’t help worrying that Mr. Hayden was worried about angering the governor,” The State’s editorial read. “Although the governor can remove her appointees only for cause, it’s hard to imagine that commissioners appointed on the condition that they fire the director would refuse to do that.”

The Darla Moore dustup and a sticky situation

Replacing the stale bread in the State Ethics Commission’s pantry could prove tricky. By the standard of the system it’s the right thing to do. But imagine the blowback.

Consider the most high-profile appointment Haley made to a board since taking office and how it turned into an explosive situation.

That was back in 2011 when the governor secretly replaced Darla Moore with a campaign contributor on the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees. When Columbia’s Free Times broke the news of the unannounced move, it led to student protests and a broader public backlash. As internal e-mails later revealed, Haley’s office was blindsided by the public reaction. Moore had been USC’s largest benefactor. She is the namesake of the business school. Aides in the governor’s office scrambled to spin the news. 

“Emails and related letters, obtained by The State through a request for public records from the governor’s office, show only a few weeks after Haley took office in mid-January, she was considering replacing Moore with Lexington attorney and campaign contributor Tommy Cofield,”  the newspaper later reported. “But when the decision was made and it became public, Haley’s staff searched for days for an explanation they could sell. It was the governor’s prerogative, they argued. Cofield shared the governor’s vision. No one actually was removed from the board. And, finally, Moore got the boot because she couldn’t be bothered to return the governor’s call and set up a meeting to discuss the board position in a timely manner.”

The fiasco eventually led to a headline by columnist Kathleen Parker in The Washington Post that read “Has Nikki Haley Doomed her Promising Career?”

If Haley were to completely reshuffle the deck with her own appointees at the State Ethics Commission, which is packed with vacancies and holdovers and in need of fresh blood, it would likely be met with a similarly critical response from her political foes and others.

A better system on the way?

Knowing exactly how many positions on boards and commissions in South Carolina are vacant or in holdover status at any given moment isn’t easy. Each umbrella entity must report those numbers to the S.C. Secretary of State semiannually, which in practical terms comes out to once every six months. So it’s unclear how different the exact number might be from when it was last documented in total more than two months ago. Furthermore, the S.C. Secretary of State cannot determine which of the hundreds of seats are either vacant or have someone serving in holdover status. 

“According to our records, in July 2013, there were approximately 780 positions on state boards and commissions in which there were members continuing to serve in hold-over positions (expired terms) or were vacant,” says Renee Daggerhart, who handles media relations there. “Based on the information that we receive from the appointing authorities, we are unable to discern how many of these positions are truly vacant. Approximately 575 of these positions were gubernatorial appointments.”

The Secretary of State’s office, however, is looking to make it easier.

“We have begun the process of developing a publicly searchable, online database for boards and commissions, and once that is available it should be easier to determine what boards and commissions have vacancies and members with expired terms,” Daggerhart says.

Meanwhile, an application for a position on any of the nearly 600 open positions can be found here

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