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Bell rebuffs new oversight of police department

Clayton County Board of Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell released a statement Thursday opposing the Board of Commissioners' recent vote to give him full control of the maintenance and operation of the county's police department.

Prior to approval of the resolution, all department heads –– including the police chief –– reported to Clayton County Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas.

"The legal issues surrounding this resolution are troubling and questionable," said Bell. "The message that it sends to the employees of Clayton County government and the citizens of Clayton County is, at best, confusing," he wrote in the statement.

"These actions have created an administrative nightmare for county employees, a lack of confidence by the business community, and general bewilderment by the average citizen," he said. "In order for the government to function at its highest and best manner, there must be clearly defined roles, responsibilities and a distinct chain of command."

In the statement, Bell referred to a 2007 Board of Commissioners decision that essentially stripped the office of Chairman of direct control over county department heads. He indicated that he should, once again, have direct authority over all department heads –– or none at all.

"I would prefer that the powers of the Chairman be restored and all departments report directly to me; however, if this cannot happen, I strongly recommend that the resolution be [rescinded]," Bell wrote.

In approving the resolution on Dec. 8, the BOC voted, 3-2, to give 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 department, as well as the unilateral ability to hire and fire the police chief. Bell and Commissioner Michael Edmondson voted against the measure.

"I can appreciate that the chairman released the statement," said Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner, Thursday. "It is along the same lines of what I was asking for. It never was an issue of having to report to him," said Turner. "The resolution gave him full power, operation, and managerial authority over the police department," he said. "They [the board] singled out the police department, when they made the police department report to the chairman. It's my belief that they should either, have everybody report to the chief of staff, or have everybody report to the chairman," Turner said.

Commissioner Wole Ralph, who put forth the resolution, said Thursday that he is surprised by Bell's statements in opposition to the resolution. "The chairman gave us indication that he wanted this authority," said Ralph. "He asked for it several times, and we've had several conversations about it.

"I was surprised by his vote against the resolution for that reason," he said. "I've indicated, both publicly and privately, that if he no longer wanted that authority, I would second his motion to rescind the resolution."

Commissioner Edmondson said Thursday afternoon that he had not yet had an opportunity to read Bell's statement. He declined to comment on any matters concerning the resolution. Commissioners Gail Hambrick and Sonna Singleton could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

However, the national representative for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, Kliff Grimes, didn't mind commenting on the issue. Grimes said Bell –– who served for more than 30 years with the Atlanta Police Department, including a stint as police chief –– is "absolutely correct" in his assertion that all county departments should report to the same person.

"I agree with him that all of them should stay with the chief of staff," Grimes said. "He's right when he said you can't take one of them and separate them from all the others."

On Tuesday, Grimes appeared before the county's commissioners and questioned their motives in placing Bell directly in charge of the police department. He asked them to rescind their vote to separate the police department from other county departments. During his comments to commissioners, Grimes said it was like having "a chief over the chief."

On Thursday, Grimes said it was "hypocritical" for the commission to take away Bell's authority to oversee county departments, only to give him back one department nearly a year later. "Either they trust him to run the departments, or they don't," he said.

The police union representative also said that singling out the police department will send mixed signals to Clayton County Police Department employees about whether the commissioners have faith in Police Chief Jeff Turner to run the department. It may cause some confusion among the employees, or even lead them to doubt their police chief's ability to run the department, according to Grimes.

"If the leaders don't know who they want running the department, then, how do you expect the employees to know, either?" Grimes said.

Grimes argued that he does not get complaints from Clayton County Police Department employees about Turner, and that the chief is popular with members of the community. He then compared Turner's reputation to that of former Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill.

"You don't see him caught up in controversies like that former sheriff down there, so it's like ‘Come on, what else is he supposed to do?'" Grimes said.

–– Staff writer Curt Yeomans contributed to this report.