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Power shift sidesteps BOC chairman

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

County officials are deeply divided over the Board of Commissioners' (BOC) decision Tuesday night to scrap several key government positions and create several new ones.

While some officials believe the changes are needed to make county government more efficient, others believe a coup has taken place, in order to give certain officials more power.

At the recommendation of Alex Cohilas, the county's new chief of staff, and with the blessing of the majority of the board (Wole Ralph, Gail Hambrick, Sonna Singleton and Michael Edmonson), the county deleted the positions of director of risk management, executive assistant to the BOC, and director of refuse control.

The majority also agreed to freeze, for a full fiscal year, the positions of economic development director and fuel attendant for the fleet maintenance department. Their actions were opposed by BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell.

Bell said the board's decisions are "a disrespect for the office of the chairman," and "in violation of their own ordinances." He also said the actions were "shortsighted and dangerous."

"The streamlining I know means narrow at the top and broad at the bottom," Bell said. "[The structure of the county government after Tuesday] is very broad at the top, including the salaries. What are we going to do for the people providing the services?

"We look like Wall Street up here," Bell added. "They got the bailout and they gave themselves big raises."

Cohilas, who also serves as the county's fire chief, said the staff cuts were part of an effort to comply with a 2005 study conducted by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.

"The chairman's [Bell] big initiative in his first administration was to employ the services of the Carl Vinson Institute for the specific purpose of streamlining government," he said. "I relied on the study, which is the foundation for my recommendations. I made the recommendations and the board voted."

Cohilas said the staff cuts and freezes will save the county about $457,000 in yearly salaries and benefits.

In the same vote to cut jobs, the board created two new positions, executive legal assistant to the District Attorney (staring salary $37,355), and director of policy and planning (starting salary $100,913), which will advise the county on how to approach future growth and regional trends.

Another facet of the action was a salary allotment of $45,569 for the existing, but unfilled, position of BOC public information officer.

In another motion, approved in a 3-to-2 vote, with Bell and Edmonson opposed, commissioners appointed Wade Starr, the county's fleet maintenance director, to serve as provisional economic development director, and provisional director of policy and planning.

Cohilas said Starr, who makes $103,451 a year in his present job, will be paid an additional $24,000 a year for the additional job assignments.

On Tuesday, the board voted to use the county's general fund, rather than the fire fund, to support a pay raise for Cohilas that increases his salary from $115,000 to $127,000.

Until Tuesday night, Ed Wall served as the county's investment banker. The commission coalition of Ralph, Singleton, and Hambrick voted 3-2 to terminate his contract.

Wall said he believes Starr, who unsuccessfully ran against Bell for the board chairmanship in 2004, successfully performed a "palace coup," which "effectively changed the form of Clayton County's government.

"He [Starr] has now achieved what he couldn't get the voters of Clayton to give him," said Wall. "Through painstaking effort on his part, he has elected three commissioners [Ralph, Singleton, Hambrick] who are loyal to him and consider him their consigliere.

"The new chief of staff and the finance director are close friends and confidants [of Starr]," he continued. "[Starr] was awarded control of three departments [Tuesday] night, and a salary increase of almost $25,000. Neither the voters, nor the Georgia General Assembly, which created Clayton County, have had a say in the change."

Starr would not comment on Wall's accusations and referred all inquiries about the staffing changes to Cohilas.

Bell said the decision to give county department heads the power to influence policy is "a subversion of state law," and may create conflicts of interests when department heads lobby the board for resources on behalf of the various departments they lead.

Commissioner Ralph, who voted "yes" to several measures to the change the county government's structure, defended the board's decision. He said giving department heads multiple jobs would not create conflicts of interest, because the decision to approve measures ultimately falls upon the board.

"The power of the voters is maintained in the commissioners they choose," he said. "The policy of Clayton County is set by the Clayton County government, not by any individual. The board has the responsibility to listen to whatever the department heads suggest, and then make a policy decision."

Cohilas said the staffing changes were made with the future of the county in mind. He defended the board's decision.

"I'm not aware of any law that was violated," he said. "I know the board of commissioners have been wanting to reorganize government to make it more effective and efficient. I am happy to lend my effort to that cause."

Bell said he believes Tuesday's changes have taken the power of county government away from its citizens.

"The acts that they performed, regarding the promotions, was in total disregard of the legislation and the legislators, who have the expressed authority to establish the form of government, and an affront to the citizens who thought they had one form of government, and now have another, without their input," he said.