Mobile County Commissioners had no real comment on their employees’ inclusion in an internal report suggesting poor management and unchecked spending were routine at the Mobile County Communications District (MCCD).
The report was the result of an investigation launched last June over a $40 million contract between the MCCD and Harris Corporation to construct and implement a new radio system for first responders. At a public cost of around $18,000, the “911 Report” ultimately led to former MCCD director Gary Tanner’s termination in February, the first day board members laid eyes on it.The report remained under wraps at the advice of the board’s attorney until Lagniappe obtained a copy in late March. Based on interviews and internal documents, it alleged former board president and Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer was instrumental in MCCD’s operations and “clearly in charge” of the Harris contract.
Though the MCCD board voted unanimously to remove Tanner based on the report, members of the Mobile County Commission have doubts about the merits of a report that offered no citation and have yet to address their employees’ roles in the findings.
Commissioners Connie Hudson and Merceria Ludgood would not comment on the 911 report themselves, but Public Affairs Director Nancy Johnson said they found the findings “incomplete and inconclusive.”
“The commissioners indicated it was hard to make heads or tails out of [the report],” Johnson said. “It contained errors. It was inconclusive, and by their own admission, it was incomplete. It makes it very hard to make any comment about something of that nature.”
The report did acknowledge unverified information related to the work Mobile County’s employees performed on behalf of the MCCD.
One of those employees was Eric Linsley, who serves as the director of public safety communications within Ruffer’s engineering department. Despite being involved with the bidding process that sparked the internal investigation, Linsley and Ruffer refused to be interviewed separately by investigators.
Johnson added Commission President Jerry Carl never openly questioned the merits of the report, though he did decline to comment until “he gets all the facts.”
While the MCCD board is standing by its decision to replace Tanner, apparently, it did not approve of the report’s public disclosure. Board member Trey Oliver led the charge in initiating the internal investigation, but said, “releasing the report to the public was certainly not the board’s decision.”“We voted not to release the report, and any release would have been an unauthorized, but it’s been out there for six months and emailed to a number of people,” Oliver said. “A number of us weren’t pleased because we felt confident the report had not been leaked out previously.”
Oliver said “a number of issues” highlighted in the report may still be unresolved and called the resulting changes “a work in progress.” However, in selecting Tanner’s replacement, Oliver said, the MCCD has a chance to continue to address any “business management issues.”
Seventeen applications have been received for the position and according to the board, the final 10 candidates should have been notified by April 13.
Whomever is selected, they should take over with a clean slate, due to an ongoing audit by Alabama’s Department of Examiners of Public Accounts. According to McNichol, a review of MCCD’s finances from 2013 to 2015 will be underway for the next 60 days.
On Tuesday, McNichol said he wasn’t sure what prompted the review, though a routine audit was originally scheduled for later in 2016.
“The new 911 law passed in 2013 established that every 911 district in the state for the first time in history would be audited every other year,” he explained. “It’s a little out of the ordinary they’re doing two years at the same time. I don’t know what’s going on with that, but we’re cooperating and giving [the auditors] all the information [they] need.”
Bentley scandal delays meetings over 911 assets
The fallout surrounding Gov. Robert Bentley’s alleged extramarital affair appears to have indirectly pushed back meetings about commingled radio assets that have already been delayed for months.
As Lagniappe reported in December, the county and MCCD are trying to find an agreeable use for $700,000 refunded from the $3.6 million communications system both entities paid for in 2012. The funds originated from an Alabama Law Enforcement Agency grant meant to improve communication between Mobile and Baldwin counties, but the system the monies paid for has never been used even though it continues to run at six radio sites.
MCCD pays the power and maintenance costs associated with the system, and recently the board has entertained the idea of selling the technology. However, any decision to sell would have to be agreed to by the county.
To iron out those issues, a sit-down with representatives of MCCD, Mobile County and ALEA has been planned since January, though it has proved difficult to organize. Former ALEA Secretary Spencer Collier was heading the agency when the grant was awarded, but his recent termination amid the Bentley scandal has only further complicated the matter.“That’s another component of this. Obviously, there’s challenges there,” MCCD Attorney Jeff Hartley said. “[Collier] can’t speak to the impact of those changes, if at all.”
Hartley said two meetings have been scheduled to discuss all of the shared assets as well as the $700,000 refund, though it’s unclear whether the regime change will affect ALEA’s willingness to be flexible with the use of those remaining funds.
Another pressing matter is the new $40 million system Harris is on schedule to have operational later this year. Once it goes live, the county’s public works department will be the only entity left using the existing radio system, which means the MCCD couldn’t legally continue to maintain it.
With that in mind, Oliver suggested the county purchase MCCD’s share of the unused P-25 Phase I system built four years ago.
“Maybe it’s a good idea for the county to purchase that to maintain their public works infrastructure. In fact, there’s been some discussion of having two separate radio systems,” Oliver said. “I mean, they paid $3 million for it. We’ll give them a great deal.”
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly credited MCCD’s Acting Director, Charlie McNichol, with an update on the board’s search for a full-time director. In fact, the update during the April 12 meeting was given by a board member.