Professionalism/Ed Turner and the City of Idaho Falls

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Ed Turner, PE/LS, was a city engineer for the City of Idaho Falls from the 1980's until June 1996. As a result of management decisions, Turner was required to sign plats and plans over which he had no authority, or in professional engineering terms, responsible charge. Turner was demoted and ultimately resigned. After taking legal action, Turner was able to prove that he was wronged. The Turner example is an important case in engineering ethics, because it shows one engineer standing up for his profession's code of ethics and the importance of responsible charge. The case also shows the important role engineering societies and licensure boards play in promoting engineering ethics and defending engineering principles.

The Story of Ed Turner and the City of Idaho Falls[edit | edit source]

Downtown Idaho Falls, ID

Background[edit | edit source]

Ed turner was raised, educated and trained as an engineer in California. In 1969, he moved to Idaho Falls, Idaho where he took a job in the engineering department in the city public works department. In 1980, he was promoted to City Engineer; the second highest position in the department after the Director of Public Works.

In 1985, the acting public works director retired and the mayor hired Chad Stanger a non-engineer to take over. Stanger was a school teacher by education. One of Stanger's first actions as director was to hire Steve Anderson, another non-engineer, and create a new position for him as Engineering Department Administrator. Ed Turner kept his title as City Engineer but was moved to a smaller office with reduced pay. By 1996, Turner was not consulted on decisions made regarding department engineering projects. Despite this, the department required him, the only Professional Engineer in the department, to sign off on all engineering projects.

Independent consultants developed plans for city projects with no input from Turner, and, therefore, he refused to endorse them. He could not claim “responsible charge” over the projects and because of this, his engineering code of ethics and professional judgment prohibited him from signing them. On March 18, 1996, Turner's responsibilities were further reduced, and management told him his pay would be reduced in order to give a raise to the new head of engineering Steve Anderson.[1] Still the city engineer, Ed Turner continued not to sign off on documents over which he felt he did not have authority. Increasingly frustrated, his supervisors initially recommended that his employment be terminated, but ultimately he was demoted to a design engineer on June 28, 1996. The situation became so contentious that Ed Turner was forced to resign from his job at Public Works.

Lawsuits[edit | edit source]

Turner took legal action, seeking damages for wrongful termination. Turner and his wife took part time jobs, sold property, exhausted savings, and mortgaged their home to pay legal fees. The first case was dismissed because his lawyer filed the lawsuit too late and on the wrong forms. The city counter-sued, and Turner settled out of court, because the settlement would be less than the legal fees. Turner then sued that lawyer for malpractice in 1999. In order to prove malpractice, he had to demonstrate to the jury that he would have won the case if the paperwork had been properly submitted. This second trial was successful and he was awarded a judgment of $290,000 on June 23, 2000. After accounting for his lawyer fees, expert witness fees, and the personal loans he took out during the two trials, he ended up in more debt than when he started[2]. Despite this, Ed Turner saw this as a victory.

Ed Turner would never hold another full-time engineering job. His income comes from reduced social security and retirement checks and occasional engineering consulting assignments. Ed Turner is still fighting for justice, giving lectures around the country in an effort to raise awareness about responsible charge and promote action of people in similar situations.

Responsible Charge[edit | edit source]

Responsible charge is defined as the degree of control an engineer is required to exercise over engineering decisions made over which the engineer provides supervisory direction and control authority.[3] The term is not well-known to most engineering students. The engineer in responsible charge should be capable of answering relevant questions about the decisions made to demonstrate reasonable knowledge of the project. They should also be completely in charge of and satisfied with the final product. They possess the authority to reject or approve at their discretion. Additionally, the engineer should have personal knowledge of technical abilities of his personnel. Finally, by affixing one's seal, they accept full responsibility for the work product, hence the term "responsible charge".

The concept of responsible charge is found in multiple engineering Codes of Ethics.

  • NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers: Rules of Practice - II.2.b. Engineers shall not affix their signatures to any plans or documents dealing with subject matter in which they lack competence, nor to any plan or document not prepared under their direction and control[4]
  • NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers: Professional Obligations - III.2.b. Engineers shall not complete, sign, or seal plans and/or specifications that are not in conformity with applicable engineering standards. If the client or employer insists on such unprofessional conduct, they shall notify the proper authorities and withdraw from further service on the project[5]
  • Idaho Board of Licensure of Professional Engineers: Competency for Assignments - Use of Seal on Documents. A Registrant shall affix his signature and seal only to plans or documents under his responsible charge[6]

As you can see from the above examples, stated implicitly or explicitly, responsible charge is an important concept in engineering ethics.

Employee Hierarchy in the Idaho Falls Public Works Department[edit | edit source]

Before city elections, the city engineer (Turner) was in responsible charge for the work done by the engineering staff, and he approved work by consultants. When a new mayor was elected, he appointed a new public works director. The new public works director created a new position known as the engineering administrator (not an engineer). The engineering staff then reported directly to the engineering administrator; therefore, the city engineer (Turner) was no longer in responsible charge of the work done by the staff. The city engineer was to communicate with only one person, the newly created engineering administrator. The employees doing engineering work did not report to the city engineer, Ed Turner; therefore, he no longer had responsible charge.

Before Chad Stanger's appointment
After Chad Stanger's appointment
Employee Hierarchy in the Idaho Falls Public Works Department[edit | edit source]

"If you refuse your boss,
you may lose your job...

...If you comply with your boss,
you may lose your license."

—Ed Turner, 2005[7]

Ed Turner owns the domain On his website, he tells his story and promotes the concept of responsible charge. He firmly believes that public safety is paramount to the engineering profession. On the site, he has uploaded many of the messages that were sent between him and other officials to document what was said. This helps him build his case. This website is Turner's way of spreading knowledge about responsible charge for the good of all engineers.

The Support of Professional Engineering Organizations[edit | edit source]

The story of Ed Turner is incomplete without addressing the support of engineering organizations. After losing his first case, Turner's malpractice suit attracted the attention of professional engineering societies. The American Engineering Alliance (AEA) in particular rallied support from engineering state boards and other professional societies. When presenting his case to the jury, Turner had four professional engineering societies and twenty-two state engineering boards vouching for his professional and legal conduct.[8] Turner's case was more than just a personal grievance; it was a fight for the autonomy of professional engineers in exercising their judgment.

The Idaho Board of Licensure of Professional Engineers & Professional Land Surveyors[edit | edit source]

The Idaho licensure board is responsible for administering and enforcing a code of rules for professional engineering working in the state. Turner's first case provides an excellent example of when a licensure board fails to do its job. The board was advised about Turner's cases against Idaho Falls on May 10, 1996 before the judge dismissed his case.[9] Turner had written the board for them to clarify their interpretation of responsible charge, to which they responded on May 28, 1996 emphasizing "You are solely responsible for what you stamp".[10] The board appeared to support Turner's interpretation of responsible charge; however, a month later, on June 28, the board stated they were unsure if Turner's situation met the requirements for responsible charge yet went on to say that it is in the professional engineer's sole discretion as to what entailed responsible charge.[11] The board did not fully support Turner. The board did not hear the case, because Turner never filed a written complaint which is required under their policy.[12] Because the case was dismissed, the board did not have the opportunity to testify on behalf of Turner. However, after the dismissal of the case, professional engineering societies would criticize the board for remaining silent.

The American Engineering Alliance[edit | edit source]

After the dismissal of Turner's first case, professional engineering societies became more involved. While the Idaho licensure board behaved according to their policy, engineering societies saw them as failing to stand up for Turner and the engineering profession.[13] The American Engineering Alliance (AEA), at the time chaired by Louis Comunelli, championed Turner's cause. Starting in May 1998, Comunelli wrote letters to the Idaho licensure board, the governor of Idaho, the Idaho State Bar Association, and the Idaho Attorney General informing them that the dismissal of the case was an affront to the entire purpose of professional engineering licensing.[14] In the letter to the Idaho licensure board, Comunelli stated that "unless corrective action is taken, there is no longer a justification for Registration of Engineers in the State of Idaho".[15] The Idaho board, in addition to 21 other state boards, would support Turner's second case because of the efforts of the AEA and other societies. The engineering societies also requested that the society's members donate funds to help Turner with his legal fees.

The Turner case became a cause célèbre for the AEA and other engineering societies. They saw the dismissal of the first case as a threat to the integrity of the engineering profession. The city of Idaho Falls argued that the case was primarily a dispute between an employer and an employee; however, the engineering societies saw it as a fight for the principle of responsible charge.[16] After the jury in the second case decided in favor of Turner, the engineering societies celebrated the case by awarding Turner awards for his courage and professionalism.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Ed Turner's case against the city of Idaho Falls is an excellent example of an engineer standing up for his principles and championing his profession's code of conduct. Turner acted courageously, particularly in knowing he would face financial difficulty as a result of his choices. It takes extraordinary individuals like Turner to defend engineering principles in the face of daily assaults; however, national and international organizations play an important role in defending and promoting professional ethics. The Turner case begs the question: Would more engineers be willing to stand up to poor management decisions if they were more aware of success stories like Ed Turner's?

References[edit | edit source]

  3. NSPE Position Statement No. 1745-Responsible Charge. 2005.
  4. NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers.
  5. NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers.
  6. Idaho Board of Licensure of PE
  8. Harris, C., Pritchard, M., & Rabins, M. (2005). Engineering Ethics: Concepts & Cases (Third Edition ed.). Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth. 272-274.
  13. Defining Down Engineering. (1998, April 20). Engineering News-Record, 240, 148.
  16. Jury Says Lawyer’s Errors Lost Case For Idaho Engineer. (2000, July 10). Engineering News-Record, 245, 16.