A seat on the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency’s Board was vacant for nearly a year, and now clarification from the Alabama Ethics Commission has allowed it to be occupied once again by county engineer Joe Ruffer.

Ruffer, who has decades of experience on several county-appointed boards, voluntarily stepped down from four uncompensated positions in March 2015. At the time, Ruffer said he reached the decision himself after an Ethics Commission opinion suggested his holding those positions created “potential for a conflict of interest.”

When Lagniappe asked the Ethics Commission to elaborate, General Counsel Hugh Evans said, in short, “a county commission member or an employee of the county can’t or at least shouldn’t serve on county boards.”

At the time, Ruffer was serving on the Mobile County Communications District (911 board), the Government Utilities Service Corporation (GUS board), the EMA board and the Mobile County Solid Waste Disposal Authority board.

In hopes of reinstating Ruffer to those boards, the Mobile County Commission sought further clarification from the Ethics Commission. As a result, positions on two of the boards stayed open for nine months and the idea of dismantling a third board was floated.

However, two of the commissioners got the green light they sought last October when correspondence from the Ethics Commission seemed to show a change in, or at the very least, a clarification of its opinion about county employees serving on county-appointed boards.

Unanimously, the Ethics Commission concluded public employees can serve on public boards and “may vote and participate in issues that directly affect the public entity that employs them” if it benefits the general public and not them personally. Had the decision gone the other way, it could have affected several other employees, including other members of the EMA and 911 boards.

Yet with that hurdle cleared, Commission President Jerry Carl still opposed Ruffer’s reappointment to the EMA board. Carl’s opposition was outweighed by support from commissioners Connie Hudson and Merceria Ludgood in a 2-1 vote Dec. 28.

“[Ruffer] has been integral to disaster response since he came to the county in 1974,” Ludgood explained. “He has responded to Hurricane Frederic and every other hurricane and disaster since then. His experience is unmatched.”

Hudson made similar comments about Ruffer’s “40 years of experience working in Mobile County,” adding that, having received the Ethics Commission’s blessing, there was “no reason that he shouldn’t be reappointed to the board.”

Carl, however, noted Ruffer’s involvement with the beleaguered 911 board, which has been mired in controversy since it was revealed the board spent about $5 million on unnecessary components for a communication enhancement project currently underway.

Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer. (Gabe Tynes)

Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer. (Gabe Tynes)

Ruffer stepped down from the 911 board two months before an internal investigation into the project was launched, and he ultimately declined to be interviewed by those conducting it. For several reasons — one being two nine-month vacancies on the board — the results of that $15,000 investigation have yet to be released.

“My concern is we don’t know what the report is going to come back with from the 911 board and his involvement with that contract,” Carl said. “It may be positive or negative, but not knowing what’s in the report, I find it hard to just automatically put him on another board.”

Hudson said Ruffer’s involvement with the 911 board didn’t factor into her decision; Ludgood didn’t respond to questions concerning Ruffer’s history. Lagniappe reached out to Ruffer for comment for this report, but no response was received by this publication’s press deadline.

Last year, there was also concern over Ruffer serving on multiple boards when those ethical questions were raised. Upon resignation from his appointed positions, Ruffer himself acknowledged that “from time to time, things do come up between” those boards.

Mobile County EMA

Mobile County EMA

For instance, the 911 board has for years budgeted up to $2 million to help fund a new Emergency Operations Center for the EMA — a plan approved while Ruffer represented both boards.

But Hudson said the construction of the EOC was one of her main reasons for reappointing Ruffer, whose engineering department will oversee the bidding and construction of that $10 million to $15 million facility.

“During his tenure on that board, he’s been a part of the planning for the EOC,” Hudson said. “It only stands to reason that, with his qualifications and experience, he be the one to represent the county during the construction process.”

Regardless, that type of overlap isn’t new, and similar instances have occurred between the 911 board and the county regarding the ownership of the current 911 radio system. Until recently, a few county engineering department employees were prepared to transfer to the 911 board, including Eric Linsley, the county’s director of public safety communications.

That move was part of an agreement to completely transfer the ownership and maintenance of the 911 radio system to the 911 board, but those plans were halted after Ruffer’s resignation and appear to be on hold indefinitely.

Since then, Linsley has stopped attending 911 board meetings, and cooperation between the two entities appears to be less frequent — as evidenced by a recent contact termination that caught some 911 board members and first responders off guard.

Tusa Consulting Services had recently been hired by the county to add vehicle location technology to the current radio enhancement project, but that contract was terminated by the County Commission last week at the suggestion of Ruffer’s engineering department.

During a work session, commissioners said the 911 board had plans to pick up the expense, which has only been legally allowed since a favorable Attorney General’s opinion was received in December.

911 Director Gary Tanner said he was aware the contract was possibly changing hands, but emails obtained by Lagniappe show the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office — which requested the work be done — was not.

Nick Tusa, the company’s owner, said he was also surprised when the contract was terminated, adding he wasn’t aware of it until after it was brought before the Commission. The 911 board is expected to decide this month whether to re-enter the contract with its own funding.

As for the EMA, Ruffer will officially rejoin other board members from several local municipalities during the first meeting of 2016 at 9:30 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 8.