By Joel Hall
Eldrin Bell is taking his fellow commissioners and the county commission's new chief of staff to court, challenging what he believes are attempts to undermine his authority as Clayton County commission chairman.
The suit names commissioners Sonna Singleton, Gail Hambrick, Wole Ralph, Michael Edmondson, and chief of staff, Alex Cohilas.
The suit seeks to nullify the board's recent approval of a chief of staff position, and to remove Cohilas from the position, said Bell's lawyer, Frank Jenkins, of Cartersville.
"They've [the board] overstepped their bounds in appointing Mr. Cohilas as chief of staff and we want the court to tell them that, and remove him from office," said Jenkins. "The local laws say there should be a chief administrative assistant, subject to the approval of the board, but appointed by the chairman. They've decided that 'we aren't going to let the chairman appoint that person, we are going to do it ourselves,' and that violates the law," Jenkins said.
"[Bell] is the one who is supposed to be the chief administrative officer," Jenkins continued. "They have tried to take that job away from him. The board would not relent, so the only choice was to take the matter to court."
Bell said the lawsuit is not personal, but "about the board and its potential violation of the law. It violates the rules of the chair as set by the Georgia General Assembly."
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Clayton County Superior Court, argues that the executive and administrative authority of the county is "vested in the chairman of the board" and "administrative assistants appointed by the chairman of the board of commissioners."
The suit also maintains that "Bell has on multiple occasions appointed persons to serve as chief administrative assistant, but the board has refused to confirm his appointments."
The lawsuit also points out that the ordinance adopted by the board to create a chief of staff position "is silent as to the duties of the chief of staff position," and is "unconstitutionally vague ... unlawful, and void."
The chief of staff position was created in December by a 3-2 vote of the board. Cohilas, who is also the county's fire chief, was installed in the post. Bell and former Commissioner Virginia Gray were opposed.
On Jan. 6, a majority vote of the board agreed to a pay raise for Cohilas, increasing his salary from $115,000 to $127,000.
Cohilas answered a reporter's phone call on Thursday afternoon, but said he would call back. A return phone call was made by Cohilas, but the reporter assigned to the story was out on assignment. Later attempts to reach Cohilas were unsuccessful.
Edmondson, who sponsored the resolution to create the chief of staff position, cited county code as his guide in supporting the action. In the county code, he said: "The board is expressly given complete power, authority, and control relative to all county matters of Clayton County" and that "all five members of the board, however, shall have an equal vote in all matters pertaining to the affairs of Clayton County, and the chairman shall carry out and administer the policies set by the board."
Edmondson said the installation of a chief of staff does not alter Clayton County's strong chairman form of government.
"Clayton County is a strong chair form of local government, meaning that we do not have a county manager," said Edmondson. "It takes legislation at the state level to change that form of government. The creation of this position does not, and will not, change that. The position was created to help the county deal with the day-to-day matters of the county."
Hambrick was not a party to the vote to install a chief of staff. However, she voted with commissioners Ralph and Singleton to approve using the county's general fund to support Cohilas' salary increase. Bell and Edmondson were opposed.
Hambrick said the chief of staff position will make the government "more efficient."
"I like the fact that we have somebody doing the day-to-day. I just know that, right now, it seems like we are saving the county money with the things the chief of staff has recommended. That's what I am about. I hope that we can agree to disagree and continue to do the work of the county," Hambrick said.
Ralph called the lawsuit a "pretty drastic and unfortunate step" by Bell.
"I've worked with the chairman longer than any other member of the board and I plan to continue working with the chairman," he said. "I hope that we don't have to have the courts undo what the board has agreed to do."
When asked for comment, Singleton said she would return a call, but the return call was not received.
Jenkins said he is waiting for Superior Judge Matthew Simmons to schedule a hearing for the lawsuit. While no damages would be awarded to Bell in the suit, Jenkins said, the county would be required to pay his fees if the court rules in Bell's favor.
"There wouldn't be damages against the county," he said. "It would basically be to right the ship, and remove the chief of staff from office."