After more than three decades of service on various boards, Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer is stepping down from several governing bodies after seeking advisement through the Alabama Ethics Commission.
As of March 13, Ruffer tendered his resignation from boards presiding over the Mobile County Communications District, the Government Utilities Service Corporation of Mobile County, the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency and Mobile County’s Solid Waste Disposal Authority — the members of which are all appointed by the County Commission and are uncompensated.
In a letter to commissioners, Ruffer said “the very appointment of a county employee to the boards created a conflict of interest on any matter that concerns both the county commission and a particular board,” citing the opinion of the Ethics Commission.
However, Ruffer said no complaint was filed, and the opinion was reached after he personally reached out to the Ethics Commission for guidance through the county’s legal staff.
“I attend Associations of County Commissions of Alabama meetings regularly, and I try to take an ethics class every two or three years to make sure I’m abreast of these laws,” Ruffer told Lagniappe. “This past year, there was an opinion about an individual who was an employee of city who also served on a rural water board. Working for the county and being appointed by the county is a little bit different, but commissioners have asked me to serve on several boards, and from time to time things do come up between the two.”
Ruffer didn’t quite get the answer he was hoping for when Hugh Evans, general counsel for the Ethics Commission, instructed the county’s legal advisors that his appointments presented “a potential for a conflict of interest.”
“There are some situations throughout the state where legislation allows a council member or a commission member to serve on a municipal utilities board,” Evans said. “As a general rule — barring other enabling legislation — a county commission member or an employee of the county can’t or at least shouldn’t serve on county boards.”
Evans said though “he didn’t like it,” there are several similar situations throughout the state. Though, most of those are related to city governments and not counties.
“We see it very frequently with municipalities where a statute will say, ‘the mayor will automatically serve as the superintendent of the utilities board’ or ‘two or three council members can serve on utilities board,’” Evans said. “In a general context, that presents a big opportunity for a conflict of interest. For example, if a city council member serves on the utilities board, and the council votes to give the board members a pay raise.”
Ruffer said he could see where the Commission’s logic was rooted — as some organizations, like the GUS board, are entirely funded by the county. According to Ruffer, 45 percent of the EMA’s funding also comes by way of the county government.
“With every decision, somebody could construe any action taken by any of those boards involved with county funds and suggest there’s a conflict, and I’m sure there are such instances,” Ruffer said. “Do I consider it a conflict? I do not. In some cases, commissioners are allowed to serve as board members. If that’s not a conflict, how can me being a board member be a conflict?”
Ruffer told Lagniappe he felt that his duty during his time on the boards was to represent the interest of Mobile County Commission, which he said he did.
In 1984, Ruffer was a founding board member of the MCCD, an organization he says is the “best and longest serving communications district in the state.”
MCCD Director Gary Tanner said Ruffer actually worked with a former county administrator to compose the backing legislation that started the MCCD — the state’s first emergency communications district.
“It’s a tremendous loss for the county,” Tanner said. “His knowledge of communications and radio systems is significant. He’s been on the ground from the beginning. It’s sad that the interpretation of the current ethics law is that a person serving on two boards appointed by a sitting commission is a conflict, without personal gain.”
Tanner said the MCCD has other members serving on more than one board and has to be careful those members don’t discuss or vote on something that might be pertain to another county board.
According to Tanner, the narrow interpretation from the ethics commission presents a challenge to boards across the state when it comes to finding individuals willing to serve but also knowledgeable of the complex and changing subject matter.
“Mobile County is far-reaching, but in small county Alabama, it’s going to be a stretch to find people with this type of knowledge that are not going to have some kind of a conflict of interest,” Tanner said. “I have engaged our lobbyist, Beth Lyons, to attempt to have legislations introduced that would tweak that to where it really reverts back to a conflict of interest related to personal gain.”
According to Tanner, Commissioner Mercia Ludgood is pursuing a similar solution through her position as president of ACCA. In the meantime, Ruffer says stepping down is best for everyone involved.
“I never thought there was a problem, but I felt like it was the best thing to do at least for this point in time,” Ruffer said. “Maybe once this is all ferreted out I’ll have the opportunity to serve again.”