GULFPORT -- It appears the search for a new head of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources is slowing down, and another possible candidate for the job has emerged in the last few days.
Two weeks ago, it appeared Ashley Edwards was the leading candidate, but last week, he confirmed he had decided not to apply. Talk from state government insiders about Edwards being the frontrunner before the start of the official search had raised some doubts about the integrity of the process. Sources had expected the next director could be revealed as soon as this week, but now the process appears to be going more slowly.
The Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources, which oversees DMR, held a well-attended meeting last week to get residents' opinions on the qualities they'd like to see in the agency's next leader. Commission Chairman Vernon Asper said Wednesday he believes an "open and honest" search process is ongoing and at Tuesday's meeting, the commission will discuss the language for an advertisement officially publicizing the vacancy.
"Perhaps I'm naive and perhaps something is going on of which I'm unaware, but from where I sit, we're doing the best job we can," Asper told the Sun Herald.
The commission will approve the ad, which will outline the executive director's responsibilities and qualifications. The commission must provide three candidates to the governor, who makes an appointment that must be confirmed by the state Senate. After the commission determines it has received a suitable number of applications, the process to select the three candidates will begin.
"This process will take, at minimum, another full month," Asper said in a Thursday news release. "We value the input we have been receiving from our stakeholders and are taking public comments very seriously. We will do everything possible to find the best administrator."
A new name emerges
Asper said the commission has received some applicants for the job, but he said information about them was being kept confidential.
Since Edwards declined to pursue the post, another name is being discussed among state government insiders. Jamie Miller had been U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo's chief of staff until he left that job in December after a little more than a year. He left to return home to the Coast. Miller, 40, had also served eight months as deputy chief of staff for the congressman, who was elected in 2010.
Miller had also worked as a coastal ecologist with DMR from 1997 to 1999, as well as Pascagoula's deputy city manager and as policy adviser under Gov. Haley Barbour.
Miller couldn't be reached for comment, so it's unclear whether he's officially sought the DMR director position.
The DMR is the focus of state and federal investigation for its spending under the leadership of former Executive Director Bill Walker. Walker, fired from the $124,000 job in January, has denied any wrongdoing.
Interim DMR Director Danny Guice, a former state lawmaker whom Walker hired as his deputy director in late 2012, has said he plans to seek the job on a permanent basis. Guice said Friday he hadn't yet spoken with Bryant's representatives about his future, but he wants to continue working at the agency either as director or deputy director.
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.
DMR takes the lead on spending millions in federal money for Coast preservation and restoration projects. It has law enforcement jurisdiction over coastal waterways. The agency has also handled distribution of millions of dollars received from BP LLC since the oil spill, and much more money from the oil company is likely on the way. The next head of the agency will play an important role when Mississippi receives its share of BP's fines for the 2010 Gulf oil disaster. The RESTORE Act will result in 80 percent of the BP penalties being given to affected Gulf states. It's projected there could be $5 billion to $21 billion split among Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Texas and Florida.
In addition to the rules on appointment, state law also specifies the DMR director "shall be knowledgeable and experienced in marine resources management."
Whoever leads DMR may have a different boss than Walker had. Bryant has said he wants to study abolishing the commission and having the next director answer to directly to him. A bill on the issue could be ready for the 2014 legislative session.