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Judge hears arguments in Bell lawsuit

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Clayton County Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield heard arguments Friday in a lawsuit which may determine the fate of the county's new chief-of-staff position, as well as the duties of the chairman of the Board of Commissioners.

After a two-hour hearing, the judge gave no indication of when she would issue a ruling.

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell is suing his fellow commissioners, as well as Alex Cohilas, the county's fire chief and recently-appointed chief of staff. While Bell's attorney said the chief-of-staff position usurps the chairman's executive authority, the defense argued that the board alone maintains executive authority, and therefore, the duties of the chairman and the chief of staff do not conflict.

"The chairman does not have the expressed authority to hire or fire any single individual in the Clayton County government," said Richard Carothers, a lawyer for Cohilas and four members of the Board of Commissioners. "The board has all the power and authority. He [Bell] is a member of the board, he is the parliamentarian, he is the ceremonial head of the board.

"Eldrin Bell was opposed to that [the creation of a chief of staff], seeing that there was some diminution of his authority," Carothers continued. "My argument is that there is no such authority."

The chief-of-staff position was approved in December by a 3-2 vote of the board. Former Commissioner Virginia Gray and Bell were opposed to the measure.

While attorneys debated the circumstances under which the chief-of-staff position was created, Judge Benefield expressed particular concern about whether the position could co-exist with the chairman. She pressed both lawyers to explain, in detail, the duties of both the chairman and the chief of staff.

"If the two existed, what would they be doing different?" Benefield asked.

Frank Jenkins, Bell's attorney, argued that the chairman serves as the county's chief executive officer and has the ability to hire and fire staff, as long as the decisions are approved by the board. He said the oversight responsibilities given to the chief of staff by the board mirror those of a chief administrative assistant, a position which should be appointed by the chairman.

"If you look at what the chief of staff does, you can see what the tremendous overlap is with the chairman and his duties," said Jenkins. "They have given him [the chief of staff] all the same powers. They've said 'we're going to hire someone as chief of staff and hire him to do the same function.' They can't appoint a person to execute the same responsibilities the chairman of the county has been elected to do. If you take away the powers of the chairman, you are changing the form of government."

On Thursday, the board moved to alter some of the chief of staff's duties, taking away the ability to hire and fire the chairman's administrative and executive assistants. Cohilas still oversees employees serving the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, and has the ability to hire and fire those employees.

Jenkins said Cohilas' current duties are an "end run" on the chairman.

"The board does have the right to operate the county," he said. "The thing that is in conflict is that the duties of the chairman are very specific. They are giving [Cohilas] the authority to execute the directives of the board."

Carothers said Bell still has "executive authority" with Cohilas continuing to serve as chief of staff. He defined executive authority as the right to "exercise whatever the board tells you to do."

On Friday, Cohilas said he would speak about the case after the judge has issued a ruling.

Bell said he was satisfied with the proceedings.

"I'm confident that the judge has heard all she needs to hear, and I will be satisfied with her ruling, because it will be in the best interest of the citizens of Clayton County," he said.