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Bell accused of 'inappropriate behavior' by employee

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Clayton County is investigating a female employee's claims of "inappropriate behavior" by Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell.

On Tuesday, county officials responded to accusations which were made by the employee on Friday: "A complaint was filed, by a Clayton County employee, of inappropriate behavior on the part of the chairman," said Clayton County Chief of Staff and Fire Chief Alex Cohilas, on behalf of the Board of Commissioners, following Tuesday night's regularly scheduled business meeting.

"An investigation was opened, consistent with policy regarding these matters, set in place years ago. The matter now resides in the hands of the county attorney, Michael Smith," Cohilas said. He would not say whether the incident involved touching, or words of an inappropriate nature, but characterized the incident as "a compliant of inappropriate behavior."

"This arose Friday evening," Cohilas said. He did not release the name of the accuser, nor the department in which the woman works, apparently in order to protect her identity.

Attorney Smith could not be reached, after the meeting on Tuesday, for comment.

Friday's accusations are not the first time Chairman Bell has been accused of inappropriate conduct. On April 7, 2004, a few months prior to being elected BOC chairman, Bell was charged with a misdemeanor count of battery after Daphne Michelle Wynn, a waitress at the time, accused him of sucking her neck during a visit to The Feed Store Restaurant in College Park.

Wynn, who did not know Bell other than having served him one other time at The Feed Store, said in her testimony that Bell "hugged me and pulled me toward him and sucked my neck. I pushed him away and said, 'Hey, don't do that!'" The case was later dismissed, according to Steve Frey, Bell's attorney in the case.

Bell released this statement on Tuesday regarding Friday's accusations:

"As this is a pending investigation, I am not at liberty to comment about the complaint until the investigation is completed. However, I am deeply saddened and disheartened by the complaint. As Chairman of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, I have made it clear that inappropriate conduct of any nature will not be tolerated. For me, this is more than a managerial obligation, but is also a moral one. Employees should be able to come to work and know the environment will be comfortable and free of any inappropriate conduct of any kind. It is my hope that the public will see from the results of this investigation that my actual actions in this case have held true to what I believe."

In another commission action, the BOC delayed selecting a person to assume the title of director of the Department of Community Development. However, the board chose to further scrutinize the two final candidates.

"I don't think the board was ready to make a decision," Cohilas said, speaking on behalf of the board. "There are two great candidates to chose from. Clayton County will be a winner either way."

According to Clayton County Public Relations Officer Jamie Carlington, the two finalists for the position are Kathleen D. Field, community development director for the City of Roswell, as well as a former director of planning for the Boston [Mass.] Housing Authority; and Frederick D. Gardiner, director of planning and development for the City of Griffin, as well as a former planning and zoning manager of the City of Villa Rica.

The two emerged as top candidates from a list of more than 20 qualified applicants, Carlington said.

Cohilas, who currently serves as interim director of the Department of Community Development, said whoever is chosen as the permanent director will oversee planing and zoning matters, long-term planning, business licensing, and building inspections for the county.

"They'll be working with our economic development people and the BOC in carrying out the board's vision for the future of Clayton County," he said. "I suspect very strongly we'll have a decision in a couple of weeks."