If a public entity attempts to unnecessarily spend $5 million on a $40 million project, what should we be left to assume — incompetence, willful negligence or worse? I’m still left wondering what was happening at the Mobile County Communications District (MCCD) more than a month after questions by some board members combined with media scrutiny to stop them from spending $5 million more than they needed to on their latest communications contract.
In September, the MCCD — commonly known as the “911 Board” — announced it had managed to dump an unnecessary 13 percent of the total cost of an agreement signed in 2013 to upgrade emergency communications throughout the county. Turns out a component called “OpenSky,” valued at more than $4 million, was something none of the police or fire agencies in the county wanted and it used outdated technology with the data transmission speed of a toaster. Roughly another $900K in savings was found once the contract was really scrutinized.
The reason $5 million wasn’t thrown down the toilet was because a couple of the 911 Board commissioners, led by Mobile County Metro Jail Warden Trey Oliver, started asking questions, which led to more than a year of stories by our own Jason Johnson getting this mess out in the open. Eventually Oliver was able to get an internal investigation started to examine how the contract turned out the way it did.
That sounds like a happy ending, but it’s still a real head-scratcher when you look at all we’ve learned over the past couple of years about the $40 million contract with Harris Communications. Perhaps more confounding is how at the end of the day, the folks running the 911 Board kind of treat nearly blowing $5 million on equipment and software nobody wants or needs as if they’d accidentally bought a few extra orders of fries at Checkers to go with their Big Bufords. I certainly took away no feeling that MCCD Director Gary Tanner and then-Board Chairman Joe Ruffer were terribly interested in trying to make sure such mistakes wouldn’t happen again.
Ruffer, whose day job is Mobile County Engineer, and Tanner drove the bus when it came to signing this contract with Harris Communications. Ruffer worked closely on the project with Eric Linsley, who is with the county as director of emergency communications and something of an expert when it comes to Harris products. Linsley even belongs to a Harris users group, which keeps him up to date on its offerings, and he put together the specifications for the project.
The contract was a mess to begin with. Linsley had Harris work for three months on the specifications for the system, and Ruffer claimed they intended to hand Harris the contract as a “sole source” provider. But at the 11th hour, when the board attorney questioned the legality of sole-sourcing the project, bids were quickly solicited from eight other telecommunications companies. Only Motorola said it wanted to bid, but asked for more time. That request was denied because the board was up against a deadline to start spending millions of dollars or lose them to the state, so Harris — the company that already knew every nut, bolt and transistor — surprisingly submitted the right bid.
The weirdness wasn’t confined just to the bid process — something several people involved have had decades of experience with. Once Oliver started looking into the matter, there were other red flags. First it was discovered more than 1,000 radios, valued at just under $5 million, had been sitting in a Chickasaw warehouse for more than two years, causing some debate over whether the clock started ticking on their warranties in 2013.
The board apparently had a “verbal agreement” allowing Hurricane Electronics, a Harris dealer, to keep an antenna on an MCCD-owned radio tower in South Washington County since 2009. Hurricane ended up paying the board more than $32,000 once this became public.
Hurricane was also being paid $22,000 a month for a year and a half for providing routine maintenance on the county’s communications system, despite having actually performed very little work. Once that came out, Hurricane quickly dropped the fee to $12,000 a month.
It also came to light that former 911 Director George Williams, who retired in April 2013, was still having his $960-a-month health insurance premium paid by MCCD under a plan pushed by Ruffer. A week after we reported on the deal, Williams suddenly found a better plan and dropped his free insurance.
When you put it all together, the 911 Board just has the same stench that comes off so many other local boards designed to oversee public entities. Most have little supervision and are loaded with political cronies who are frequently loose with public dollars. In this case the public is lucky to have had some board members willing to stick their necks out to make sure minimum millions weren’t wasted.
The shadowy Ruffer, one of the county’s longest-serving and highest-paid employees — sometimes referred to as “The Fourth Commissioner” because of the power he wields in Government Plaza — seems to be at the center of controversy when the light is shined on him lately. When the board agreed to hire investigators to get to the bottom of this bizarre contract, Ruffer and Linsley even refused to be interviewed separately. That’s pretty weird.
And let’s not forget that during Mobile County License Commissioner Kim Hastie’s corruption trial, it was revealed Ruffer had set up a plan for computer contractor Victor Crawford to quietly repay $82,000 he’d overcharged the county. Ruffer never bothered to even tell the Mobile County Commission about the overcharge or his nifty repayment plan. Crawford referred to Ruffer as a “friend and mentor” during the trial, so we can probably assume it’s good to have friends in high places.
As the issues at 911 surfaced, Ruffer also suddenly decided he’d better ask the State Ethics Commission if it was OK for him to serve on four separate county-related boards while also working as the county engineer. To his chagrin, they told him it wasn’t, so he resigned from four boards he had served on for many years. Strange someone finally thought to ask, even with all these highly paid board attorneys lurking around.
Even as I write this, though, Ruffer’s spot on the 911 Board stands vacant — perhaps someone is hoping once things cool down he can sneak back, or maybe the county commissioner in charge of appointing that position is too busy with other things. But he’s been gone more than nine months. Former Mobile Fire Chief Stephen Dean also left the board to move out of town and hasn’t been replaced. Meanwhile, last month’s 911 Board public meeting didn’t happen because there weren’t enough members for a quorum.
I don’t know why I’m reminded of Public Enemy’s lyrics, “911 a joke in yo town,” but hopefully the members of the board who actually seem to care can get things under control soon.