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Judge delays hearing in
commission lawsuit

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

A Clayton County Superior Court judge delayed a hearing Wednesday in a lawsuit filed by Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell against his fellow commissioners.

Judge Deborah Benefield decided to push the first hearing to Jan. 30, on the basis that commissioners Wole Ralph and Gail Hambrick - both among the co-defendants in the lawsuit - had not yet been served with the suit Wednesday afternoon.

Bell is suing commissioners Michael Edmondson, Sonna Singleton, Ralph and Hambrick, as well as Alex Cohilas, the county's chief of staff, on the basis that the recent creation of the chief-of-staff position is illegal and subverts the power of the chairman.

Buford attorney Richard Carothers is representing the board and Cohilas, while attorney Frank Jenkins of Cartersville is representing Bell. Both lawyers were ready to argue on behalf of their clients, but the hearing was delayed until more than a week.

"Georgia law states that the position of chief administrative assistant shall be appointed by the chairman," Jenkins said Wednesday. "They call it chief of staff, but what they have done is really appoint a chief administrative assistant. They don't have the right to do that."

Carothers argued that the chief-of-staff position is "perfectly legal and very common." He insists the chief of staff serves in a supportive role to the chairman and the board of commissioners.

"The chief of staff actually takes direction from the chairman," Carothers said. "They report to the commission. It's just another administrative staff [position] in the county. They're all the same, they're to assist the board of commissioners.

"Mr. Cohilas is the interim chief of staff, not the permanent chief of staff," Carothers added. "I think the board feels a chief of staff can be helpful."

Tensions arose on the board in December when board members voted to create a chief-of-staff position and provisionally appointed Cohilas, the county's fire chief, to serve in the new role.

On Jan. 6 - the board's first meeting of the year - board members, at the recommendation of Cohilas, eliminated the positions of the director of the risk management department, the executive assistant to the BOC, and the director of refuse control. The board also voted to increase Cohilas' salary from $115,000 to $127,000 for serving in both capacities.

In the same meeting, at the request of Cohilas, the board created a policy and planning director position and provisionally appointed Wade Starr - a former political rival of Bell - to serve in the position in addition to his duties as fleet maintenance director. Starr, who ran against Bell for the chairmanship of the board in 2004, was given a $24,000 raise for serving in the new position.

The chief-of-staff appointment gave Cohilas the ability to "hire, supervise, train, and evaluate assigned office staff," according to the county's job description. Jenkins contends that power should be reserved for the chairman.

"[The board has] said, 'OK chief of staff, you can fire the chairman's employees, even his executive assistant,'" he said. "They set up this chief-of-staff position as an end-run," Jenkins continued.

Citizens have been divided about Cohilas' appointment to chief of staff. While some believe Cohilas' recommendations are saving the county money, others contend the position creates division and controversy.

"I'm very unhappy with the way my tax dollars are being spent," Willie Folds, of Morrow, said during Tuesday's commission work session. "The fire chief is a full-time job in my opinion. We don't need any more problems in this county. Are you all trying to imitate the school board and the sheriff we recently removed?"

Alita Knox, a Riverdale resident, defended Cohilas and his titles.

"I agree with the chief of staff," she said. "We are getting the bang for our buck. If we hired another person, it would cost a lot more. Chief Cohilas has been even keel and level headed. If there was a conflict [of interest], I believe he would recuse himself."

Bell declined to speak about the lawsuit Wednesday. Cohilas said chief of staff is a necessary position.

"My interest wholly, totally, and solely is to work for the citizens of Clayton County," he said. "I think the position is vital, no matter who fills it."

Bell's lawyer, Jenkins, said that at the hearing next week, he will ask the judge to officially rule the chief-of-staff position illegal.

"This could be decided by next Friday," he said.