After two and half years as the director of the Mobile County Communications District, former state senator and county commissioner Gary Tanner was terminated this morning after a unanimous no-confidence vote by the MCCD’s board.
Tanner was promoted to director in June of 2013 after 10 years with the MCCD but was let go on Thursday morning after the board privately reviewed the results of an internal investigation conducted last Fall.
The findings from that $18,000 investigation have still not been released to the media or the general public, so the exact reasons for the termination are unknown. Tanner also declined to comment to local media after the votes were cast.
When asked, 911 Board President Stephen Bowden only commented to say the board terminated Tanner because of “a loss of confidence,” though he didn’t go into many specifics.
“It was time to move in a new direction,” he added.That new direction is one the board started moving toward in 2015 after the internal investigation that preceded Tanner’s ousting was launched to review a $40 million communications enhancement project awarded to Harris Corporation in 2012.
Last September, several features some described as “unwanted” and “unnecessary” were removed, bringing the cost of that project down by close to $5 million. Board member Trey Oliver said Thursday that removing Tanner was “a business decision,” though he did say it wasn’t entirely related to the Harris contract.
“We got to this sad day because of long-standing friendships and politics,” Oliver said. “You cannot let friendships and politics get in the way of business decisions, and this morning, the board members unanimously had the guts to make a business decision.”
Oliver didn’t clarify what friendships he was referring to, but allegations of biased bidding have been part of the discussion about the Harris Contract throughout the past year — a bidding process overseen at the time by Mobile County employee Eric Linsley and County Engineer Joe Ruffer, who was also on the 911 Board at the time.
Both have openly acknowledged that MCCD was working with Harris prior to opening bids for the project on in 2013. However, they maintain the 911 board initially believed the project could be awarded as a “sole-source” contract through a pre-approved state bid list.
Despite Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich claiming to have launched her own investigation into the contract, no criminal charges have been filed against anyone related to any aspect of the contract or its bidding process. However, the controversy and media attention over the past year does appear to have affected the relationship between the county and the MCCD board.
Oliver told Lagniappe he isn’t sure if removing the director will make things better or worse.
“I hate to admit it, but there may be some bad blood because of the action we took today,” Oliver said. “The County Commission’s employees are not communicating openly with us anyway. We have to have our lawyers call their lawyers, and that’s absurd.”
Yet when asked about Oliver’s comments, Mobile County spokesperson Nancy Johnson told Lagniappe county personnel had been working with the 911 board as recently as last week.
“Our employees have provided full responses to the MCCD for information requested by their staff, and we have an ongoing dialogue with the District,” Johnson said in an emailed statement.
That being said, Ruffer and Lindsley refused to participate in the investigation unless they were interviewed together — a condition the panel conducting the review ultimately refused to accept.
As Lagniappe reported last month, the friction between the county and MCCD is relevant because the entities split the ownership and maintenance costs of certain components of the 911 system. Both are also expected to sign off on a “memorandum of understanding” clarifying the previously undocumented arrangement in the near future.
“A lot of decision-making authority was given to people who were not 911 board employees,” Oliver said. “We can’t hold them accountable, but what we did here today was take actions to hold our people accountable for decisions that were made over the past couple of years.”
Tanner, who was being paid upwards of $126,000 at the time of his termination, will be replaced in the interim by Deputy Director Charlie McNichol. Having not seen the report from the board’s internal investigation, McNichol said the decision to remove Tanner was “surprising.”
“I’ve worked with Mr. Tanner and he’s done a good job since I’ve worked with him. This is a great agency and a great operation,” McNichol said. “What I have to focus on now is running this agency, because we have a lot of employees and a very important mission to Mobile County.”
While there’s no indication of how long the search for Tanner’s replacement will take, the board has officially opened the position and McNichol told local media he’ll definitely be submitting his name for consideration.
Aside from Tanner’s position, the MCCD board once again has a seat to fill after Citronelle Police Chief Shane Stringer unexpectedly resigned Wednesday afternoon. Despite the timing, Stringer insists his resignation had nothing to do with the report that was released to board members only hours later.
“I resigned because I’m involved in so much as the president of the Police Chiefs Association and as the chief of a small town police department,” Stringer said. “I’d love to see that place turned around, and to me we’ve gone through the worst of it, but I’m trying to do the best job I can for the city of Citronelle.”
For clarification, Stringer was not a member of the board during any of the times relevant to the Harris Contract. However, during his short tenure, Stringer did work with investigators on the internal review and was vocal about his concerns with the contract.