If you hired a guy to oversee the construction of your house and just about the time things were about to wrap up you did a little investigating and found out your foreman had overspent by more than 12 percent of the total cost, would you hire him to oversee another project?
What if that same foreman had discovered a subcontractor overcharged you, but instead of telling you he came up with a secret repayment plan and continued to use that subcontractor, would you hire him again?
That’s pretty much what County Commissioners Connie Hudson and Merceria Ludgood did last week when they reappointed County Engineer Joe Ruffer to the Emergency Management Agency’s board prior to the construction of a roughly $12 million operations center.
For four decades Ruffer has served as the county’s engineer, becoming perhaps the most powerful, shadowy and embedded non-elected member of local government. Last March, citing ethics concerns over a county official or employee serving on an appointed board, he hastily stepped down from four uncompensated boards he had been on for years that oversaw local governmental agencies. This happened just as his leadership role in a $40 million communications contract with the county’s 911 Board was being publicly questioned by fellow board members as well as the media.
In the end we learned the contract with Harris Communications, which was heavily overseen by Ruffer and his subordinate at the county, Eric Linsley, contained close to $5 million of needless expense. There were a number of bizarre components to the whole issue, including $5 million worth of radios that ended up sitting unused in a warehouse for almost two years. Harris Communications dealer Hurricane Electronics also was not being charged for using a 911-owned tower to house its private antenna, and ended up drastically reducing a monthly maintenance charge after other board members questioned the expense.
It all ended up looking as fishy as a canned tuna factory. Ruffer and Linsley were both intimately involved in the contract and Ruffer was looked to as a leader because of his experience. When the board ordered an investigation into things, Ruffer and Linsley were less than helpful and refused to be interviewed separately. In the interim neither has had much to say about why the contract was botched so badly — and I think we can call a $5 million mistake “botched.”
So why would Hudson and Ludgood be chomping at the bit to put this guy back on the EMA Board to help oversee another big project? It makes little sense, especially since he was already going to be involved in some capacity due to the nature of his job as county engineer. They even took nine months to fill the empty position on the board, waiting for a new Ethics Commission ruling more favorable to Ruffer being returned. They got it recently and promptly slapped him back onto EMA.
Despite the very serious issue of almost misspending $5 million, these commissioners act as if Ruffer is the only person who can serve on such boards. The Commission held his seat open on the 911 Board as well for months even as the board struggled at times to meet a quorum. Hudson and Ludgood even openly talked about disbanding another board once Ruffer left, as if it no longer was needed without him.
In returning him to EMA, Ludgood cited Ruffer’s experience in Hurricane Frederic 36 years ago, as well the hurricanes and disasters since. Hudson also cited his 40 years of experience working for the county and said following the Ethics ruling there was “no reason he shouldn’t be appointed to the board.” Clearly neither have concerns about his role in the 911 Board debacle.
Last year during then-License Commissioner Kim Hastie’s corruption trial it was discovered Ruffer had set up a payment plan for computer contractor Victor Crawford to reimburse the county for more than $80,000 in overcharges, but did so without even informing his bosses on the County Commission. Asked for a statement on whether Ruffer’s behavior in that matter concerned either Hudson or Ludgood, county spokesperson Nancy Johnson wrote back for them, “Ruffer is expected to manage the contracts under him and in this case identified an overpayment and made the arrangements for restitution.” I guess he’s not supposed to mention he believes a contractor who has done millions in work for the county is overcharging. Why would Hudson and Ludgood need to know that?
County Commission President Jerry Carl, who voted against Ruffer’s return to EMA, said, “I know I am far from perfect, but this is one of the most frustrating parts of this job! It’s hard watching a double set of standards applied when it’s convenient to take care of a buddy.”
He also challenged the acceptability of Ruffer’s payment plan for Crawford. “If it is OK for Ruffer to do that, then it is OK for every other county employee to do it. One of our jobs is to hold not just ourselves but every county employee accountable,” he said.
Time and again over the past 13 years we’ve written about one appointed board after another where at minimum there was really sloppy management and at maximum outright corruption. Where some of these activities fall we’ll probably never know without the DA’s involvement. But it’s hard to look at Ruffer’s behavior on the 911 Board, combined with the secret Crawford repayment, and applaud Hudson and Ludgood for appointing him to EMA.
When I look at Ruffer and Hudson both donating to Carl’s opponent in the upcoming race, as well as Ludgood’s anger when Victor Crawford was fired by the License Commission recently, it’s hard not to see a political cabal of sorts aimed at keeping the quid pro quo going and getting rid of those who dare to question the way things are being done.
If Mobile County is so devoid of talented, smart people that someone with Ruffer’s questionable behavior is the only person two of our commissioners believe capable of serving on the EMA Board, we truly have an emergency.
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