Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

By: Sid Salter 

It’s unlikely that Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves was either seeking or expecting any praise from the Sierra Club – a liberal environmental organization – when announcing his appointments last for the new executive director of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP) and the new executive director of the Mississippi Public Utilities Staff (PUS).

Reeves appointed two veteran Republican public officials to the posts as Lynn Posey was appointed executive director of the MDWFP. Posey most recently served as interim executive director of MDWFP and is a former longtime Mississippi state senator serving portions of Claiborne, Copiah, Hinds, Jefferson and Lincoln counties and a former Mississippi Public Service Commissioner serving the Central District.

The governor also tapped State Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, as the new executive director of the Mississippi PUS. Beckett is an attorney who has represented District 23 (Calhoun, Grenada, Lafayette and Webster counties) in the House since 2004.

Neither Posey nor Beckett comes to these jobs without significant, relevant experience. Posey served as state Senate chairperson of the Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Committee for 16 years and was a prime mover in the creation of the Mississippi Sportsman’s Caucus in the Legislature. He also served two terms as Mississippi’s Central District Public Service Commissioner.

Beckett’s 19-year tenure in the Mississippi House of Representatives has included a decade of service as chairperson of the House Public Utilities Committee. In short, Reeves would have been hard-pressed to find two appointees with more relevant experience to both lead these agencies and work effectively with the Legislature in the budget process.

From his vantage point, Reeves said of the pair: “The individuals being appointed today have a long track record of distinguished public service. I have the utmost confidence in their abilities and look forward to seeing all that they will accomplish in their roles.”

The Sierra Club’s displeasure over the appointments of Posey and Beckett was offered by the group’s Mississippi State Director Louie Miller on the website Mississippi Today, in which Miller was quoted as calling the pair “political hacks” and supposedly told the outlet that Reeves should have “chosen more qualified directors.”

Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, D-Nettleton, was likewise quoted in the Mississippi Today story with vague concerns – stopping well short of criticism – about the Beckett appointment. Presley was not quoted regarding his former PSC colleague Posey.

This current political flap, which isn’t likely to impede the Senate confirmation process for either Posey or Beckett, calls to mind a special session battle back in 2009.

Some 33 years ago, the Legislature took power away from the elected Public Service Commission by creating the Public Utilities Staff. The action came as a result of a public corruption scandal involving former Northern District PSC Commissioner D.W. Synder.

In reaction to that scandal, the Legislature in 1990 mandated a reorganization of the Public Utilities Staff. The “old’ PUS was abolished, and the “new” more powerful PUS was established as a completely separate and independent entity from the elected PSC.

Under the new law, the governor appoints the executive director of the PUS to a six-year term, not the commissioners, and that director hires all Public Utilities technical personnel.

In 2009, the Legislature adjourned the regular session without passing a budget for the PSC. The standoff was about partisan politics and the perception of an alliance at that time between the PSC and then-Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat. Then- Republican Gov. Haley Barbour was clearly behind the Legislature’s failure to fund the PSC in regular session.

Fast forward to 2022. Presley is perceived as a possible leading Democrat gubernatorial candidate next year. Controlled by the GOP, legislative interest in the PSC and the PUS will be about as keen as at any time since, say, 2009.

While the Sierra Club’s Miller has been consistently above his organization’s national fray and focused on environmentalism, the national Sierra Club has been hammered not from the conservative right but from the political left and internally over charges of alleged racism and misogyny against founder John Muir and modern era toxic culture criticisms against the national organization.

Suffice to say that Sierra Club disdain is unlikely to block these gubernatorial nominations