Last week — nine months after its longtime leader stepped into retirement — Mobile County’s public works department was diagnosed with a number of issues in a report that prescribed a major retooling of its policies, practices, leadership and culture.

Conducted by The Mejorando Group, the $30,000 review was part of the Mobile County Commission’s mission to replace former Engineer Joe Ruffer, who directed the department for 42 years before retiring as the county’s highest-paid employee in 2016.

Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer. (Gabe Tynes)

Ruffer led the department as its responsibilities, budget and independence expanded greatly over the years. However, consultant Patrick Ibarra said, at some point, the department’s independence grew into something closer to autonomy.

“Going back several years for several reasons, the public works/engineering department has acted as an independent, stand-alone department, separate from county administration,” Ibarra wrote in the report. “Department leaders have exercised significant discretion on operations and services, with fluctuating oversight, utilized unnecessary and overly cumbersome budgetary methods applied stale and possibly risky management practices, and fostered an extremely unhealthy workplace culture in many of the functions.”

Ibarra reached that conclusion after weeks of interviewing stakeholders and employees, reviewing of policies and practices and examining the role the engineering department plays in the county government.

Currently, public works oversees millions of dollars in road and bridge projects but also building maintenance, electronics, environmental services, parks and recreation, and a number of functions added over several years by what Ibarra described as a “plug-and-play approach.”

More than 30 percent of the county’s $176 million budget in FY 2016-2017 was allocated to line items that fall under the purview of public works, some of which Mejorando’s report called unnecessary, duplicative or “inconsistent with the [department’s] overall mission.”

While the county has its own information technology, human resources and accounting divisions, public works has developed many of its own in-house versions of those services.

Those include separate accounting and HR divisions, independent policies and procedures and stand-alone systems for its email, website, telephone and local networks that require “additional hardware, software, purchases, maintenance and personnel.”

Mobile County Public Works’ website.

While Ibarra said some services could be eliminated, his review didn’t include analysis of what any potential cost savings might be, though he did warn commissioners that inconsistent policies create an unnecessary legal liability for the county.

“It’s not uncommon for some departments to have policies specific to their department, but they should not be in direct opposition to county policies, especially regarding time-off requirements, work rights and things of that nature,” he said. “Their policies need to be consistent with the county’s, because this department creates liability for the taxpayers, and exercising too much independence puts them unnecessarily at risk.”

Some of those concerns have been raised before, specifically by Commissioner Jerry Carl, who mentioned duplicative functions in a presentation of his own proposed changes to the engineering department — some of which were consistent with Ibarra’s findings.

However, with Mejorando’s report in hand, Carl described “a pushback” when previous attempts were made to change the department, at last part of which he blamed on Rufer’s legacy.

Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl.

“We still struggle with a lot of the old administration — the ‘fourth commissioner,’ as I called him. As good as he was at so many things, we’re still struggling internally with some of those roadblocks,” Carl said. “One thing this plan tells me is the three of us [commissioners] have got to get more hands-on and start asking questions.”

It’s worth noting the county has started to clear some roadblocks, though. Prior to Mejorando’s involvement, public works was retooling its work order and billing practices, and efforts were already underway to integrate its IT systems with the county’s.

Still, commissioners say there’s work to be done, and the search for a new department head has provided an opportunity to effect change from the top down — to “peel back the layers” and make “positive changes,” as Commissioner Connie Hudson put it.

The report concurred. Ibarra claimed the level of “credibility” employees saw in the leadership of the public works department seemed to vary during his interviews with different employees. He described a low morale and a prevailing feeling among employees that the work they perform isn’t valued.

Ibarra said whoever takes the helm should have character, substance and style that reflect the culture and mission of the department — warning commissioners not to be so focused on credentials that they overlook an applicant’s approach to management.

“Over years the years, the department has adopted a very ‘command and control’ management approach — a sort of ‘do as I say’ mentality that puts more of a focus on compliance than commitment. That was very clear in the interviews I had with employees,” he said. “It’s easy to find people with technical expertise. There’s no shortage of people with the credentials, the degree and the pedigree, but this is about the type of leader a person is going to be as well.”

One key suggestion in Mejorando’s assessment was for the county to split the department head’s responsibilities and pursue an organizational model with both a county engineer and public works director, with both reporting jointly to the Commission.

At the moment, that seems to be the preferred option, although the only action commissioners have taken is to accept the report. Any movements toward implementing the changes Ibarra and his team proposed will be made over time.

“I think the biggest thing this told me is that we’re probably not looking for a person, we’re looking for a couple of people,” Carl said. “Let’s get this split up so we’ve got two people that are tying to make this function properly, then we can start setting goals.”

While all three commissioners accepted the report, Commission President Merceria Ludgood made a point to tell public works employees the review isn’t an indictment, but a chance to get better.

“We know everybody is well intentioned, working hard and doing the very best they can, and when we have an opportunity to up our game, I think all of us are ready to do that,” Ludgood said. “We have consummate professionals who take advice and who can take and hear what we may view as criticism but take them constructively.”