Mike Wooten’s term expired 11 weeks ago, yet there he is
By ROBERT MEYEROWITZ
There’s been a lot of talk of reform around the South Carolina statehouse recently — specifically, of reforming the state Department of Transportation.
This has occurred in both the House and Senate as each chamber crafted and passed bills to raise the gas tax, ostensibly to fix state roads, and then came up with a compromise bill that the Senate passed yesterday. In order to secure majorities, tax-increase proponents had to overcome objections from some legislators and others that the DOT doesn’t set spending priorities in line with safety and maintenance needs. The problem, some believe, is with its commission structure.
As the state law, amended last year, currently stands, seven of the eight members of the commission must be appointed by the governor and approved by state legislative delegations (the eighth is appointed by the governor to an at-large seat, and must be approved by a legislature committee). They’re given four-year terms that commence on February 15, can serve a maximum of two consecutive terms and no more than 12 years. They can only be removed with the legislature’s consent.
The commissioners, in turn, run the DOT, whose director, the secretary, serves at their pleasure. In effect, while they hold their commissions, they run the show — and this is true even when they don’t. The law also states, “Commissioners shall continue to serve until their successors are appointed and confirmed, provided that a commissioner only may serve in a hold-over capacity for a period not to exceed six months.”
That brings us to DOT Commissioner Mike Wooten. Appointed four years ago, his commission expired on February 15 of this year, but on he sits, placing the ball in Governor Henry McMaster’s court.
“The governor’s office is reviewing the appointment and a determination will be made in the future,” said press secretary Brian Symmes.
So when Symmes says “in the future,” does that mean weeks, months?
“The governor’s going to review the appointment and when he finds somebody who will do the best job for the state, he’ll appoint that person,” Symmes explained.
Four years back, Wooten was elected as the only choice for the position when his sole opponent dropped out before the vote.
His tenure has been arguably bumpy. Last year, The Nerve obtained emails showing that Wooten had “used his position to have DOT staff and elected officials pressure a local government entity engaged in a dispute with an agency over a $1 million contract of which Wooten’s firm” — DDC Engineers, of Myrtle Beach — “was a subcontractor.” Further reporting showed that Wooten’s firm, as a subcontractor, had benefited from projects that DOT helped to fund.
The law states that it is unlawful for a commissioner to ask or solicit, directly or indirectly, any money, contract, or other thing of value.
We individually emailed the 24 state House and Senate members of the Seventh Congressional District who must approve whatever action Governor McMaster takes in regard to Wooten’s seat before the candidate goes to a legislative screening panel, the Joint Transportation Review Committee, and asked whether each wished to see Wooten retained or preferred anyone else. We followed up with phone calls to legislators. (For an interesting take on the difficulty of simply determining who they are, go here — and note that the information preceded the last election for state offices.)
We didn’t get a single response.
McMaster, the legislative delegation, and the JTRC must agree on a new commissioner or to reappoint Wooten by August 15 or the seat will be vacant.
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