BILOXI -- Jamie Miller's name was announced Tuesday as Gov. Phil Bryant's choice to head the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources -- an agency under a cloud of state and federal investigations.
Bryant announced his pick, which must be confirmed by the state Senate, at news conference at DMR headquarters in Biloxi. The governor said Miller, who has a bachelor's degree in environmental biology from the University of Southern Mississippi, fully understands how important the Coast's resources are to the state's well-being. Bryant also touted Miller's private-sector work and government experience as a federal programs and grant administrator.
"With this Gulf Coast, these coastal resources that God has given us, it is so important to have a man like Jamie Miller, who has taken the opportunity and the challenge to become the next director of DMR," Bryant said.
Miller, 40, of Gulfport, was U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo's chief of staff until he left in December after a little more than a year to return to the Coast. He said he had planned to spend January with his family and take time to unwind. He had a
job offer with a government consulting firm, but decided about the first week of February to pursue the DMR director job.
Before working for Palazzo, Miller had worked as Pascagoula's deputy city manager and as policy adviser under Gov. Haley Barbour during Hurricane Katrina recovery. But he began his career as a coastal ecologist, working for the DMR from 1997 to 1999.
"This place is special to me," he said.
Accountability a priority
Miller acknowledges the DMR faces plenty of obstacles, given the ongoing investigations of its spending, but he wants to transform the agency. He said his goal is to make it the most respected, well-managed and effective agency in state government.
"I'm excited about being part of the solution," he said. "Let me just say it begins and ends with being transparent and accountable to the public."
He vows to put the agency through a review in the first 60 days on the job. He would evaluate how decisions are made, how money is spent and accounted for and how the agency manages resources.
"We're going to have to identify the things that have been done wrong," he said. "We'll find the things that we're doing right. We're going to do everything better."
The Sun Herald reported recently the DMR hasn't had a state audit since 2002. Bryant, who was auditor from 1996 until 2008, and his successor, Auditor Stacey Pickering, both said they had enough staff to audit only the largest state agencies each year.
The smaller agencies are audited every few years on a rotation, but somehow the DMR went 11 years without a review.
Counties and cities are required to pay for their owns audits each year. Some, including Bryant and Pickering, have said requiring the same of state agencies may be a good idea. Miller vowed to have the DMR audited every year.
Senate must confirm
The state Senate will take up the nomination before the legislative session ends April 7. Senate Ports and Marine Resources Chairman Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, leads the committee that will handle the confirmation and he expects the hearings to happen late next week. A background check on Miller must be done for the committee beforehand.
As for what he thought about the pick, Wiggins said he's reserving judgment because the committee needs its information first.
"On the surface it looks good, but there's a lot we have to look at," Wiggins said.
Sen. Tommy Gollott, R-Biloxi, is on Wiggins' committee. He wrote the legislation that created the DMR in 1994 and is the longest-serving member of the state Legislature. He said he doesn't expect any controversy over the Miller nomination.
"I'm just glad (Bryant) went ahead and chose someone so we can get on the road to recovery," Gollott said. "I hope he does a good job and we don't have any of the problems (DMR) had before."
The job pays $83,427 to $108,455. Bryant's office said Tuesday the state Personnel Board will make a salary recommendation based on Miller's qualifications and experience.
Opening created in January
The job has been vacant since DMR Executive Director Bill Walker was fired in January from his $124,000-a-year post amid investigations of spending during his tenure. Walker has denied any wrongdoing.
Commissioners said 17 people had sought the job, but their names weren't released because the commission said it had agreed not to.
Sources had been telling the Sun Herald for weeks Miller was the likely choice.
In early February, Ashley Edwards, executive director of Bryant's recovery office, was thought to be the front-runner. But Edwards, dubbed a "go-to" man on Coast issues by some in state government, declined to pursue the job. Miller said he and Edwards are friends and he had supported Edwards' candidacy, deciding to apply only after Edwards declined.
DMR Interim Director Danny Guice, whom Walker hired as his deputy director late last year, has said he'd like to remain as director or go back to the deputy director job. He applied for the director job, but a few weeks ago, it became apparent to insiders he wasn't the choice. He wants to keep working at the DMR.
"I would like to offer any assistance to the new director in any way I can," Guice said Tuesday. "I think he is a good choice."
The DMR has grown to be a powerful state agency in less than 20 years. Today, it has more than 140 employees, other contract workers and an annual state 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.
The DMR takes the lead on spending millions in federal money for Coast preservation and restoration projects. It has law enforcement jurisdiction over coastal waterways. It has handled distribution of millions of dollars from BP since the 2010 oil spill, and much more money from the oil company is likely on the way.
The next agency head will play an important role when Mississippi receives its share of BP's fines for the 2010 Gulf oil disaster. The RESTORE Act will give 80 percent of the BP penalties to affected Gulf states. It's projected there could be $5 billion to $21 billion split among Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Texas and Florida.