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Judge orders county to pay chairman's legal fees

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Clayton County Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield has ordered the Clayton County Board of Commissioners to pay $25,576.95 in legal fees amassed by Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell in a lawsuit over the creation of the county's chief-of-staff position.

This week, Benefield gave the county a month to pay attorney Frank Jenkins, who represented Bell in a lawsuit contending that the creation of the chief-of-staff position usurped the powers of the chairman.

At the time, Benefield ruled that the argument over whether the position usurped Bell's authority was moot, because commissioners had failed to follow proper procedures when originally creating the chief-of-staff position.

On Monday, Benefield granted a motion filed on May 21 by Frank Jenkins, Bell's attorney, to recover legal fees and expenses. According to the order, the $25,576.95 in fees include a $5,000 retainer paid out of pocket by Bell to secure Jenkins' services.

"That was an action brought by my counsel," Bell said on Wednesday. "I paid the retainer and all the other fees mounted up, and the attorney chose to seek those funds from the county. I am certainly not wanting to take any relief over that matter because I believe it was an unnecessary expenditure, but it was an action we had to take."

On Dec. 9, the board voted 3-2 ( with Bell and former Commissioner Virginia Gray opposed) to create a chief-of-staff position. Alex Cohilas, who is also the county's fire chief, was installed in the post. Bell argued that certain executive powers granted to the chief of staff sidestepped the powers of the chairman.

On March 12, Benefield ruled that the board's Dec. 9 creation of a chief of staff was "not in compliance with the provisions of the Georgia Constitution," due to the fact the board failed to confirm the position during two regular business meetings. On Monday, Benefield ruled that Bell "retained outside counsel and was ultimately successful on his claim, therefore the defendants must pay the plaintiff's attorney fees."

The ruling gives the county 30 days from Monday, July 13, to pay the amount in full.

Jenkins was out of the country on Wednesday, according to Legal Administrator Kimberly Jackson, and could not be reached for comment.

Clayton County Staff Attorney Michael Smith, Clayton County Litigation Attorney Jack Hancock, and the commisson's Defense Attorney Richard Carothers, also could not be reached on Wednesday.

Bell said the expense to the county associated with the lawsuit is unfortunate, but that he believes it was necessary to carry out the will of voters, who chose him to lead the county.

"I take no personal relief in having to do that in the first place," Bell said. "The people had spoken at the election and I believe what the people spoke should have been done. I want to be able to put those things behind us and focus on the serious issues ahead of us."