It’s been more than three months since Mobile County Commissioners accepted the resignation of longtime engineer Joe Ruffer, but with ongoing discussions about reorganizing the sizable department he left behind, it could be awhile before someone is tapped to fill the position.
It’s been decades since they were called “road and bridge commissioners,” but even though the role of county government has evolved over time, the infrastructure and highway projects managed by the engineering department remain a critical part of the commission’s mission.
Locally, engineering and public works make up 15 percent of Mobile County’s current budget, and at more than $26 million it was second only to the county’s public safety and law enforcement costs for the 2017 fiscal year.
From 1974 until last October, Ruffer oversaw the engineering department. With his departure, commissioners have tossed around the idea of making some changes and are likely willing to spend thousands of dollars on consultants to help in the process.
In October, the county sent out requests for proposal to a number of consultants capable of performing “organizational development work,” and according to County Administrator John Pafenbach, at least four companies have responded, submitting bids ranging from $30,000 to $150,000.
So far no offers have been accepted, and it’s possible the final price could be lower depending on what the selected consultant is actually asked to do. At a Jan. 5 conference meeting, Commissioner Connie Hudson said there were ongoing efforts to make the scope of that work “much more narrow,” which should also reduce the overall price.
However, it’s been difficult to get a read on exactly what type “restructuring” the county might be considering — thanks, in part, to restrictions under the Alabama Open Meetings Act limiting public officials’ ability to communicate with one another outside of an advertised meeting. For a three-member body, those restrictions can be even trickier to navigate.
“I have some ideas I would like to share with the other commissioners. It’s not a final thought or anything, just a rough sketch, but it’s hard for us to come up with a finished product to present in a situation like this because it’s still far from finished,” Commissioner Jerry Carl said. “From a management standpoint, how are you going to structure something like this without communicating with one another?”
In response, County Attorney Jay Ross told Carl he could email his thoughts to the other commissioners, though he cautioned the commissioners to avoid any direct “back and forth” communication on the issue because it would ultimately be voted on.
At this point it’s unclear how Carl will proceed, though he recently said the commission wants to evaluate whether a number of functions that have been consolidated under the engineering department over the years should continue to operate that way.
“It’s mostly just looking at the structure — the big pyramid that’s been built here,” Carl said. “It’s not moving things for the sake of moving them, we’re just asking: Does it truly make sense for things like building maintenance, environmental engineering and parks and recreation to all be under the road and bridge department?”
Carl said he believes past commissions have tried to consolidate responsibilities over the years so they could work directly with fewer departmental managers. That has often meant delegating more oversight and more responsibilities to engineering and to the county administrator’s office.
With a change in leadership, Carl said it’s a good time to see if spreading out those responsibilities might not be a better option, though he has previously stated he doesn’t think hiring a consultant is necessary to get that job done.
“I can’t see paying a company to come in — whatever the price is — just to compile that information when we’ve got everything we need here,” he said. “The people that know how to restructure and know what the needs are of the employees themselves, it’s just a matter of communicating with them ourselves and figuring out what their opinions are … If you want the best shovel, you go to a guy who uses a shovel every day.”
However, his fellow commissioners don’t seem to think an organizational change of the proposed magnitude is quite that simple.
Commission President Merceria Ludgood, who last year said she, too, didn’t “have a need for a consultant,” recently said she now believes bringing in an “independent third party” is the only option that would allow the public works staff to “speak openly” about their ideas and concerns.
“They can’t run the process and be involved as well, and the same goes for us,” she said. “To me, that’s the advantage of a third party — you get somebody who does organizational development work all the time and who knows how to get in there and talk to the right people.”
Though she reiterated that the scope of work still needs to be scaled back, Hudson agreed the cost of hiring a third party familiar with best practices and who has done this type of work elsewhere would be “money well spent” for the county.
“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We’ve all got some ideas of things that we think need to happen, but I think a disinterested third party can come in and help direct that so we’re not all over the place,” Hudson said. “But we do want this process to end sooner as opposed to later.”
Meanwhile, Deputy Public Works Director Ricky Mitchell and Assistant County Engineer Bryan Kegley have submitted their names for the full-time position.