Despite the matter being previously discussed with attorneys for the Alabama Ethics Commission, Mobile County is seeking a formal opinion as to whether its lead engineer, Joe Ruffer, can serve on multiple county-appointed boards.
As has been previously reported, Ruffer stepped down from four boards earlier this month, and in his resignation letter cited conversations and correspondence with Hugh Evans, the ethics commission’s general counsel. The letter to Mobile County Commissioners suggested Ruffer’s service on such boards would create an “inherent conflict of interest,” in Evans’ legal opinion.
Others have previously told Lagniappe there was also an issue of Ruffer serving on multiple county boards simultaneously, all of which handle some funding from the county commission.
“This is far reaching, not only for Mobile County but for all municipalities and counties in the state,” District 1 Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said. “We want to put them on notice, so that everybody that’s potentially affected can weigh in. So much of these opinions depend on what facts are submitted.”
Ludgood, who serves as president of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said she also plans to address the issues with other commissioners across the state who could be facing similar situations.
As of March 13, Ruffer tendered his resignation from boards presiding over the Mobile County Communications District (MCCD), the Government Utilities Service Corporation of Mobile County (GUS), the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) and Mobile County’s Solid Waste Disposal Authority.
So far, Ruffer hasn’t been replaced on any of those boards, but while discussing a GUS board appointment during the March 23 meeting, commissioners begin to question whether the three-member body has outlived its usefulness to the county.
According to Ruffer, the GUS board was created years ago when the commission was looking at creating a sewer treatment option in the southeastern part of Mobile County. At the time, the county purchased 2,000 acres of land for a treatment plant, but public backlash made the board reconsider.
“Since then, we’ve used that property for the mitigation of wetland losses and streambank mitigation for the most part,” Ruffer told commissioners. “But, there’s no reason the engineering department or the commission couldn’t handle that itself.”
Ruffer said the county’s engineering department, which he oversees, has performed all the engineering work related to the GUS board since it was created, as it has with the Solid Waste Authority Board — another board Ruffer recently stepped down.
Ruffer said the board is totally funded by the county, and generates only a small amount revenue from leasing its property. For instance, the GUS board recently agreed to lease some of its land to the MCCD board, which Ruffer served as president of until his resignation earlier this month.
“The only issue is, the GUS board was instrumental in getting the permit for the sewer treatment plant in Mt. Vernon,” Ruffer said. “When you have sewer, you have to have an outfall and a permit through the Alabama Department Environmental Management (ADEM). That comes with a lot of jumping through hoops and environmental concerns.”
Ruffer said the GUS Board applied for an outfall permit before the Mt. Veron facility was constructed because of the growth in area generated by the Outokumpu facility and the amount of time it takes to obtain ADEM’s proper environmental permits.
“We looked into the future and made that decision in case the funding ever became available, but the County Commission could do that also,” Ruffer said.
Other than the permit, Ruffer said there’s no reason the county couldn’t assume the duties of the GUS board if it were to be dissolved. Though, the county’s legal staff couldn’t immediately answer if that would be a commission action or one the GUS board would have to take on itself.
However, District 3 Commissioner Jerry Carl raised some concerns over leaving only two board members over GUS in the meantime. According to county records, Terry Joe Debrow and Keith Wise are the two remaining members, though Carl had planned to appoint Sam St. John in Ruffer’s place, according to the agenda from Monday’s meeting
“I really wanted to have someone on the board from that area that was environmentally conscience,” Carl said. “I think we still need to put a third person on there, regardless of what we end up doing with the board. Moving it back into the county makes the most sense, but we’ve still got this limbo.”
Though Carl ultimately tabled his motion to appoint St. John, other commissioners expressed a desire to keep “a representative of the county commission” on the board should it continue to exist — a criteria St. John would not meet.
“Our environmental services and engineering departments are basically doing all the work,” Commission President Connie Hudson said. “It’s good communication. Let’s let the legal department look at this and confirm whether we need to dissolve the board or if we need that third person.”
County Attorney Jay Ross had already begun looking into the legal process behind dissolving the county board.
However, according previous conversation’s with the ethics commission, a paid employee of the county representing its interest on a board would present a “conflict of interest,’ which goes back to the root of why the commission has requested written clarification on the matter.