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Opposition grows over Bell's control of police

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Some citizens are expressing concern about the Clayton County Board of Commissioners' recent vote to hand over full control of the maintenance and operation of the county's police department to Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell.

Some citizens and law enforcement representatives said they believe the board's vote last week shows a lack of confidence in the police department, and is a back-door attempt to replace Police Chief Jeff Turner.

Kliff Grimes, national representative for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, questioned the board's motives during Tuesday night's county commission meeting. He said he believes the board's move undermines Turner's authority, and asked that it be rescinded.

"This resolution basically made the officers wonder why their department has to be micro-managed, why their department has to be singled out," Grimes said. "If this was done to help Police Chief Turner, then why wasn't the chairman asked to be an advisor instead of over the department. Basically, this makes the officer think we have a chief over the chief."

On Dec. 8, the Board of Commissioners voted 3-2, Bell and Commissioner Michael Edmondson opposed, to pass a resolution giving the chairman "the full power and authority of the Board of Commissioners to make all decisions concerning the Clayton County Police Department." The resolution gives Bell 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.

Rosa Barbee, a community activist and president of the Brookwood Village Homeowner's Association, questioned the board's decision, based on Turner's performance.

"Homicide has dropped in the county 60 percent this year ... our chief has established 241 neighborhood watch programs," Barbee said. "He is in our schools, he is teaching and educating our children to stay away from gangs and drugs. He is doing his job, so what is the problem?"

Following the meeting, Turner said he has not yet had the opportunity to meet with Bell and get a "full understanding" of how the resolution would impact his authority as police chief. However, he said that in order to "be an effective leader ... it is important that people see me as the person in charge of the police department.

"The part about reporting to Bell doesn't bother me as much as giving him full discretion over the maintenance and operation of the police department," Turner said. "If they [police officers] feel like my power is being usurped ... that is making my job as the police chief minuscule and useless. It's obvious that they are singling out the police department. If they are going to do that, they should have everybody report to Chairman Bell or everybody report to the chief of staff.

"I take my job seriously and I want to be able to do what I was hired to do, and that is run the police department with the full authority I had when I was appointed," he added.

While Bell voted against the last week's resolution, Grimes said he believes Bell has given tacit approval.

"It's kind of one of those, 'I don't want this,' but the hand is out the entire time," Grimes said.

Bell left Tuesday's meeting before questions could be raised concerning the resolution. Later attempts to reach Bell were unsuccessful on Tuesday.

Clayton County Commissioner Wole Ralph, who put forth the resolution, maintained Tuesday that the resolution "in no way takes away power from the police chief" and was a way to "leverage his [Bell's] experience" to the benefit of the police department. Ralph said he was "surprised" Bell voted against the resolution, citing a lawsuit earlier this year in which Bell sued the commission over the powers the board gave to the chief of staff to oversee department heads.

"The chairman engaged in a lawsuit that would have the board do exactly what this resolution does," Ralph said. "To that reason, I am surprised that he voted against it. If Bell put forth a resolution that he didn't want this, then I would second it."

In other matters Tuesday, the Board of Commissioners passed a resolution that could lead to an extension of the end-of-service date for the C-TRAN bus service from March 31, 2010 to June 30, 2010 or longer, if the board is able to convince the Atlanta Regional Commission to let the county give $2.7 million of stimulus funding to the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) and, in turn, have MARTA use $2.7 million of its capital investment funds to operate C-TRAN.

According to Clayton County Staff Attorney Michael Smith, the ARC would have to approve the idea and present it to the Federal Transit Administration before the end of the year.