DHEC discourages public from approaching board

sfretwell@thestate.comSeptember 14, 2013 

The state environmental and health agency is restricting access to board members at monthly meetings in Columbia.

Signs were posted at Thursday’s Department of Health and Environmental Control meeting advising people not to approach members at their seats in the agency’s board room. An armed guard sat next to one of the two signs.

“Board members and designated DHEC personnel only,” the signs read.

Jim Beasley, a spokesman for DHEC, said the agency has had a long-standing policy of trying to keep the public and the media away from the board’s conference table during breaks in the monthly sessions. But Beasley said DHEC had not posted signs until this month’s meeting.

Beasley said board members sometimes have documents at the conference table that can’t be shared with the public but could be viewed if someone approached a member during a break in a meeting.

“They’ve got information that just shouldn’t be seen by some people,” Beasley said. “We also have protected health information, that kind of thing.”

Beasley said if members of the media have questions, he could seek answers from the board members. Or board members can step away from their work area to discuss matters, if they choose, during breaks in the meetings, he said.

In the past, board members have been approachable during breaks in meetings.

The DHEC board sets policy for the agency, which oversees public health and the environment in South Carolina. DHEC is one of the largest agencies in South Carolina, with about 3,500 workers.

This year, DHEC has drawn fire for failing for months to tell the parents of schoolchildren in Greenwood County that a school janitor had tuberculosis. At Thursday’s meeting, director Catherine Templeton recapped the agency’s actions to help more than 50 children who eventually were found to have the tuberculosis germ.

Her remarks provided little new information, but Templeton was unavailable to answer The State’s questions during a break in the meeting because of the new policy.

The department’s new policy restricting public access isn’t unheard of in South Carolina.

The state Senate, for instance, also posts guards and signs telling people not to approach senators at their desks in meeting rooms.

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