- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A plan to reorganize the scandal-plagued Department of Marine Resources and require that it be audited every year is moving forward.

House members passed an amended version of Senate Bill 2579 Tuesday, returning it to the Senate for more work.

Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, persuaded House members to amend the bill, taking out a provision that would have removed Marine Resources employees from civil service protection for one year.

Baria argued current managers shouldn’t be trusted with that authority, considering past mismanagement. Former DMR Executive Director Bill Walker pleaded guilty Monday in U.S. District Court to a charge of conspiring to defraud the federal government. Two other former Marine Resources employees are under indictment.

“If there ever was an agency that needed to be held accountable, it is the DMR, considering what has gone on down there, and I don’t believe it’s appropriate to remove them from the protections of the state Personnel Board.”

Supporters, including Rep. Jeffrey Guice, R-Ocean Springs, said they’re confident in current leaders and say they should be allowed to freely reassign or fire employees.

“It’s just dragging out the inevitable,” Guice said of maintaining civil service protections. “I don’t believe the purpose of getting out from under the personnel board is about firing people. It’s about reassigning people.”

The measure also sets requirements for the agency’s chief financial officer, chief scientific officer and head of the state Marine Patrol.

The House version also removes a proposal by Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, which would have abolished an account for the state artificial reef program. Wiggins said the state needed better oversight of that money, which was tied to Walker’s conspiracy charges.

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