People asked to weigh in on new DMR chief

Public will be able to weigh in on new chief at Feb. 7 meeting

Sun HeraldJanuary 31, 2013 

The people of South Mississippi will have a chance to tell the Commission on Marine Resources what qualities, experience and expertise to look for in a director.

The commissioners plan a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Bolton Building in Biloxi to discuss the replacement of fired Director Bill Walker. Attendees will have five minutes each to give their opinions on the search.

The commission eventually will submit three candidates to Gov. Phil Bryant and he will pick one, who will need Senate confirmation.

One of the toughest jobs the next director will face will be rebuilding public trust in the agency, which is the subject of state and federal investigations, said interim Director Danny Guice.

Guice began his campaign to refurbish the DMR image, and perhaps land the director's job, with a pep talk of sorts to more than 100 DMR employees. He held up a copy of Thursday's Sun Herald and the headline "Director: DMR working to regain trust" as an example of the need for the department to be open with the public and the media.

"I don't want them to needlessly worry," Guice said after the meeting of the DMR staff. "The DMR has about 130 employees minus one or two. These people are professional folks and do a wonderful job and I don't want them suffering because of the actions of one or two people, and I don't think that's fair."

Guice was talking about the investigations that cost Walker his job. The cloud from that probe, which is before a grand jury, likely will be over the DMR for as long as a year and a half, he said.

"The public needs to know we're here, we're operating every day, we're doing the things we need to do," he said. "These people had nothing to do with most of this stuff that's going down. The investigations, once they're completed, should answer all those questions, and I just want the public to know these folks are doing a great job and I support them 100 percent.

"It's hard to take criticism for something you didn't participate in. And these folks didn't."

Staffers comment on Guice

Most of employees left after the 15-minute meeting and hurried back to work, but a few who stopped to talk seemed to be on Guice's side.

Joe Jewell, a staff officer with Marine Fisheries, said, "The meeting was positive and went really, really well.

"The employees were looking for guidance and information. The employees are looking for the same thing as the public -- they want some reassurance that our main programs are still on track. The confidence that the public had with the mainstream employees here is still intact and we're proceeding with the normal functions that we do.

"As Mr. Guice mentioned, this is restricted to two or three individuals that are part of this criminal investigation and it has nothing to do with the rest of the employees. The employees here, the honest, hard-working employees, the first time they're hearing of these things is in the Sun Herald. They're as uninformed as every one else is -- and as concerned."

Jewell said he was among those questioned by investigators but he is not a target.

"There is a criminal investigation, as you know, and those type of activities, certainly that could have been a lot more transparent. In my position and 95 percent of the people at DMR had no part of that process.

"I want to reassure the public that we do have that bond with them, we have that trust."

'Focused on our jobs'

George Ramseur, who manages dredge materials, said the simmering scandal at the DMR hasn't affected his ability to do his job.

"Most of us are very focused on our jobs, he said. "We're very concerned about the public perception and loss of trust because that is vital to us being able to carry out these jobs. It's affected us it terms of our day-to-day feeling and our concern about how we move forward with our objectives, and I feel Director Guice is really taking us in a great direction in terms of focusing on gaining that trust."

Tom Stadler, four-year contract employee with the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve program, said he felt good about having Guice as the interim director.

"I think he will be a guy who will talk to you. It will be good."

Stadler said under Walker there was less openness at the department. "That was the general feeling," he said.

'A positive step'

Bradley Randall of the Shellfish Bureau said he thought the meeting was "a positive step."

"In the Shellfish Bureau, we deal one on one with our constituents. We've always had an open relationship with our stakeholders," said Randall, a DMR employee since 2004.

"We're going to continue doing a good job of managing our resources. We're focused on our mission, and we'll try not to let the other stuff affect us."

Jennifer Leirer, Guice's assistant, said she got immediate feedback when she sent out a message about the meeting with Guice.

"'This is great, I've been waiting for something like this,'" was the response to the meeting being called, she said.

"People feel confident that Danny is in control now," she said. "That's the feeling I get."

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