Winding down a year full of controversy, the board of the Mobile County Communications District is looking to get back on track with the appointment of three new members as it moves into 2016.
As its nickname suggests, the “911 board” commissioners manage the countywide radio system used by first responders. As such, it has historically comprised representatives from police, fire and emergency medical agencies throughout the county.
Recently, however, due to resignations and members changing jobs since their initial appointment, some agencies have been unrepresented on the board.
On Dec. 14, the Mobile County Commission moved to fill three vacant positions — appointing Jeff Reeves of the Mobile County Association of Volunteer Fire Departments, arbitrator Robert S. Adams and retired Rear Adm. Richard Landolt, who serves as Mobile’s executive director of public safety.
“Of course we welcome the three folks they’ve added,” MCCD Director Gary Tanner told Lagniappe. “We hope we can move forward now with a full slate.”
Reeves immediately filled the vacancy left by Rusty Halloway, a 36-year veteran of the Tanner Williams Volunteer Fire Department, but the seats filled by Landolt and Adams were empty for the better part of the past year.
One thing the vacancies kept from “moving forward” was a report from an independent investigation the MCCD launched into a $40 million communications enhancement project approved in 2013.
That investigation started in June and cost the board more than $17,000, but so far, the findings of those efforts have not been presented to the board. Though there have been some reductions in cost, the project resumed but the results of the investigation were were held until those vacant positions were filled.
Despite almost nine months in limbo, only one 911 board meeting was ever canceled because of a failure to reach a quorum. Yet board member Trey Oliver recently suggested the “two vacancies were causing an undue delay” in the MCCD’s operation.Those two vacancies were created by Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer and former Mobile Fire Chief Stephen Dean. In March, Ruffer resigned from the 911 board and three other county-appointed positions at the advice of the Alabama Ethics Commission.
The county held his position open for months while awaiting further clarification, but ultimately Commissioner Connie Hudson nominated Adams to fill Ruffer’s spot on Dec. 14.
Adams is a nationally recognized arbitrator and, according to his biography, has worked with the University of South Alabama for eight years. When asked about Adams’ nomination, Hudson said she felt his “skill set” was “perfect” for the job.
“He’s very good at what he does and at bringing people together,” Hudson said.
Lagniappe made multiple attempts to reach Adams for comment on his appointment but has so far been unsuccessful.Dean was originally appointed to the board to represent the city of Mobile because of his 39 years with the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department. However, two months after Sandy Stimpson was elected mayor, Dean announced his resignation as chief of the department.
Despite that, Dean remained on the 911 board almost two years, something at least one of his fellow members expressed concern with. In April, Oliver wrote a letter to county commissioners addressing several issues, including Dean’s continued spot on the board.
“To say Commissioner Dean is not happy with the city would be an understatement,” Oliver wrote.
Shortly after, Dean stopped attending board meetings. According to an HR coordinator with the MCCD, the last meeting he attended was in May. Tanner has previously explained that Dean “took a job out of town” and could no longer attend meetings, yet he remained listed as an active member until he was replaced this month by Landolt.“Whatever happened was between the mayor, [Dean] and this executive staff, [which] I only joined in July of last year,” Landolt said after his appointment was finalized. “I think I’ll bring a new set of eyeballs [to the board], and I’ll bring integrity to the issues. But most importantly, I’ll be representing the mayor and his interests.”
Other officials in Mobile were also pleased with Landolt’s appointment, including Police Chief James Barber, who said representation on the board was something he’d been working with the MCCD to accomplish.
“I think it’s immensely important because we, the Mobile Police Department, are probably the biggest users of the 911 system,” Barber said. “Having representation on there that satisfies our needs will at least give us input into the policy practices and the resources of 911.”
As for the lengthy delay in the appointments, Hudson suggested a lack of consensus among the commissioners was to blame. Hudson told Lagniappe she had recommended Adams’ appointment before, but added that “one person can only do so much.”
“I think some of the concern was that we do have people serving on the 911 board that were traditionally representing one public-safety sector and then no longer represented that sector because they moved on to other jobs,” Hudson said.
One such example is the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office, which last year had employees in three of the seven seats on the board. Two of those members — Oliver and Cynthia Coleman — were employed by other departments when they were appointed but were later hired by the MCSO.
Because of instances like Coleman’s and other factors, Hudson said the board “didn’t turn out to be quite the cross section of the public safety community it was intended to be,” adding the appointments this month are aimed at correcting that.
“We want a little more of the different sectors represented, but it may still be a work in progress for the future,” Hudson said.
The board will convene its first meeting of 2016 on Jan. 14 at 8 a.m. at the MCCD Communications Center, 7340 Zeigler Blvd. in Mobile.