Bryant considers ending DMR governing board

mmnewsom@sunherald.comJanuary 28, 2013 

BILOXI -- Gov. Phil Bryant wants to study doing away with the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources and have the head of the Department of Marine Resources report directly to him.

In a meeting with the Sun Herald, the governor said he didn't have any issue with the job performance of the current members of the commission, which oversees DMR. However, he'd like to study doing away with it, as well as several other boards that oversee state agencies, and he's working with Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann on the issue.

"I have always been curious as to why we have these boards that are created that oversee a state agency," Bryant said. "Why do we need a board? I'm not being critical of the board, but (DMR), I think we need to look at the future of it reporting directly to an executive at the governor's level and not to a board."

There's also the commission that oversees the Port of Gulfport, a board overseeing the department of education and others that might be dissolved.

"I'm not saying do away with the board of the Department of Education," Bryant said. "But, as a governor when you say, 'I really have some aggressive ideas I'd love to look at in education,' there's this board sitting there.

"If you went to the people of the state of Mississippi and said 'name to me the people

who are on the Board of Education,' it would be amazing if they could name one person. There is tremendous authority and power within these boards and commissions."

Bryant said he expects more work with Hosemann on the issue, which could yield recommendations being sent to the Legislature next year.

DMR issues discussed

The Sun Herald has reported the Investigative Audit Division of the State Auditor's Office and the FBI are investigating the DMR's spending under recently fired Executive Director Bill Walker's leadership. The U.S. Interior Department recently audited the agency.

The activities of the Mississippi Marine Resources Foundation, which Walker directs, has been placed under scrutiny. Public money from the DMR has flowed through the foundation, but how much isn't clear.

The DMR spent more than $1.46 million out of a Rigs to Reefs program fund on upgrades, maintenance and insurance for the two recreational fishing boats the foundation owns. The fishing trips the DMR has taken lawmakers and other influential folks on have been questioned. The DMR defends the use of the boats, which it leases from the foundation, saying they are used to educate people through fishing trips to artificial reefs the agency maintains.

Documents the Sun Herald received show other public money has been given to the foundation through thousands in environmental violation fines.

Recently, the Sun Herald also reported the foundation gave some of its money to political campaigns.

Bryant received $1,500 and his campaign returned the money earlier this month, following Walker's firing. U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo's campaign had received $250, but gave it back this month. U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker declined a $300 check, saying campaign finance law wouldn't allow him to accept it. State Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, said he was given between $200 and $250, but told the Sun Herald he would return it. Former State Sen. Billy Hewes, who is running for mayor of Gulfport, turned down a check from the group because it came from a foundation.

Other politicians may have received foundation funds, but a full accounting of the organization's spending hasn't been given.

Bryant chimes in

DMR has grown to be a powerful state agency since it was formed in 1994. Today, it has more than 140 employees, other contract workers and an annual state funding appropriation of about $19 million, plus typically more than that in federal money and grants to go with the state money, according to Department of Finance and Administration records from recent budget years.

Though it's under investigation, the governor said he doesn't think, at this point, there's a need to do away with DMR as it exists now and let another agency do its work.

"Personally, I don't think that would be necessary," Bryant said. "The agency, as it exists, has a great responsibility and it focuses more on the Gulf Coast. I like that portion of it. This Gulf of Mexico is something very, very special and with the responsibilities and with the duties and support that agency gives, we've just got to make sure it is managed properly."

No comment from Fisher

Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality Executive Director Trudy Fisher also attended the meeting with the Sun Herald. She had directed thousands from environmental violation fines to Walker's foundation, but didn't want to comment on the issue.

"I don't have any comments about the DMR foundation," Fisher said. "I didn't have any input in the way it was set up, or the way it was handled, or the way it was administered."

Fisher signed orders directing fines totalling over $30,000 to the foundation. Earlier this month, Fisher said MDEQ believed the foundation was eligible to receive the money and they believed the funds were furthering DMR's mission.

When asked Tuesday why she wouldn't comment further on the situation to explain what she thought about the foundation's spending and what should happen going forward, Fisher responded, "I guess there's a reason why they say hindsight is 20-20."

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