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BOC gives Bell oversight of county police

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to delegate full oversight of the county's police department to Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell.

The move -- opposed by Bell and passed by the majority of the board -- gives the chairman the ability to make all decisions concerning operation and management of the police department, as well as the unilateral ability to hire and fire the police chief, according to the resolution adopted by the board.

The board voted 3-2 in favor of the resolution, with Bell and Commissioner Michael Edmondson opposed. Commissioners Wole Ralph, Sonna Singleton and Gail Hambrick voted in favor of the changes.

According to the resolution, "the full power and authority of the Board of Commissioners to control, supervise, oversee, and make rules and regulation governing the management and operation of the Clayton County Police Department is hereby delegated to the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners."

The resolution adopted Tuesday also states that the "Chief of Police shall report directly to the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners, who shall have the full power and authority of the Board of Commissioners to make all decisions concerning the Clayton County Police Department, its operation and management, including but not limited to the selection, hiring, retention, termination, or firing of the Chief of Police."

Ralph, who put the resolution forward, said it was passed as a way to leverage Bell's past experience as Atlanta's police chief, to better address crime in the county. He said the resolution does not strip away any of the duties already assigned to Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner.

"It is a way to identify the talents of one of our board members to deal with one of the number-one issues in the county, which is crime," Ralph said. "We have wanted to create a police commissioner ... somebody who the chief could confer with and come up with strategies and planning [for] the personnel and operational challenges, as it relates to fighting crime in the county. We're not asking him [Bell] to be police chief. This is a supervision, accountability, resource management, and advising role of the police chief."

According to Ralph, the resolution gives Bell the unilateral discretion over certain police matters, which in the past, would have been brought before the full board for approval.

"Right now the police chief has the ability to assign [take home] cars to individual officers and the list is approved by the board," Ralph said. "With this resolution, that would go to the chairman and then the chairman could approve that. In the past, the board would do the annual evaluation of the police chief. Now the chairman would do the annual evaluation."

Bell said he believes the resolution passed Tuesday may conflict with state law, and that the changes it sets forth for the police department are "no way to run a ship."

"I have always had a question as to whether you can take a resolution and trump an ordinance or state law," Bell said. "The commissioners voted to take over the day-to-day operation ... now, by resolution, we want to start giving it back to the chairman with insufficient staff and resources to properly manage any department.

"As [Atlanta's] police chief, I had 2,600 people working for me and appropriate office staff," he continued. "[Now] I've got two part-time people working for me. How am I going to manage the chief of police? In terms of organization, in theory and principle, I don't think it's a wise thing to do and may not be in the best interest of the police department at all."

Turner said he has "concerns" about the resolution the board passed on Tuesday night. He said while he is unsure of the full ramifications, the changes "single out" the police department, making it the only county department which would not report directly to Alex Cohilas, the county's chief of staff.

"I don't know what the rationale was," Turner said. "I don't really have much I can comment on because I am not sure as to all of the ramifications as it relates to my department. I will have to get with the chairman ... I need to get some clarification on some things."

During Tuesday's meeting, the board also voted unanimously to de-annex from the City of Riverdale the 155-acre property which contains the Charles R. Drew High School complex. The property, once within the city limits, will now receive fire and police services from the county.

Clayton County Public Schools Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson said the de-annexation was an example of cities and the county working together for the safety of children.

"The Riverdale Fire Department, the closest [station] to us is on [Ga.] Highway 85," Jackson said. "For them to respond, they would have to go into unincorporated Clayton and back into the City of Riverdale. Clayton County has a fire station right there on Garden Ridge [Parkway], less than a half a mile from the school. Since the property is tax exempt anyway, it is just a cooperative agreement by the county and the city to serve the needs of the school system."