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Judge rules chief-of-staff post created unlawfully

By Joel Hall

Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield ruled Thursday that Clayton County commissioners unlawfully created a chief-of-staff position, and appointed Fire Chief Alex Cohilas to it.

The ruling did not address the commissioners' authority to create the position, but declared the action null and void because it was enacted on Dec. 9, during a "Special Called Meeting," and therefore, was "not in compliance with the provisions of the Georgia Constitution."

Benefield's ruling said "a county may amend or repeal the local acts by a resolution or ordinance duly adopted at two regular consecutive meetings of the county governing authority."

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell filed the lawsuit challenging the creation of the position in January, asking a judge to find that the chief-of-staff position conflicted with the duties of the county's chairman. He argued that the position should be appointed by the chairman and confirmed by the board.

Bell's attorney, Frank Jenkins, said Benefield's ruling was not the ruling he originally sought, but accomplishes the goal of removing the chief of staff.

"The judge ruled that they failed to follow the right procedure," Jenkins said. "Because they did it wrong, the issue of if they could do it was moot." However, "we demonstrated to the court that they [the board] had created an unlawful position in naming the chief of staff. The fact that he [Cohilas] had an office would be unlawful. We got the court to declare that and that's what we wanted."

Bell said he was pleased with the ruling and believes it will clearly define the duties of the chairman.

"This ruling is not about winning or losing ... it's about what the citizens expected," he said. "Sixty percent of the people voted, expecting me to become the manager of the day-to-day operations of the county. When these new ordinances were passed, I needed clarity. [Benefield's ruling] has given me clarity, and I will move forward with that and do everything I can to work with the board."

A day before a hearing in January on the lawsuit, commissioners backing the chief-of-staff appointment, altered some of Challis' duties in the wake of Bell's complaint that the appointment usurped his powers as chairman of the board. They eliminated the chief of staff's ability to hire and fire the chairman's administrative and executive assistants.

Today, Cohilas will resume his dual duties as fire chief and interim community development director. According to Cohilas, his salary of $127,000 will revert back to $115,000.

Cohilas said he respects Benefield's decision and it will not impact his commitment to the county.

"I've known [Judge Benefield] for many, many years and I think she considered all the facts," he said. "I understand her ruling was [based on] a procedural failure, not on the authority of the board to create the position.

"What motivates me is public service," he continued. "It has been my privilege to serve the citizens of Clayton County for over 30 years in a variety of roles. I will continue to serve the citizens of Clayton County in any role the board asks me to fill. This ruling by Judge Benefield will have no negative impact on me in any way, shape, or form."

Commissioner Michael Edmondson, who championed the creation of the chief-of-staff position, believes the position has benefited the county. He said that the judge's ruling was based on a "technicality" and that he would support re-establishing the chief-of-staff position through the proper procedure.

"There is no question that the chief of staff has been positive for the county," said Edmondson. "It has provided structure, organization; it has taken issues off the desk and has moved them forward. I have personally received many calls praising the new position and the personality we put into this position. I have no problem voting on [Cohilas] again. ... the judge pointed out a technicality, it can be easily remedied."

However, Bell's attorney said he would consider taking the board to court again if Cohilas is reinstated as chief of staff.

Bell said he discussed the ruling with Cohilas on Thursday and that "there will be no vindictiveness on my part where Mr. Cohilas is concerned, or any of the members of the board are concerned.

"The only thing I have asked Cohilas to do tomorrow is to come prepared to give the citizens a full day of work," Bell said. "I will do whatever I can to work with, not against, my colleagues. I just hope that the judge's ruling provides additional clarity as to how we can all move forward together."

Cohilas said his discussion with the chairman has been "productive" and believes the ruling will not negatively impact their work relationship.

"The creation of the job never impacted the way the chairman and I interacted with each other, and the ruling will in no way negatively impact the way we interact with each other," he said. "We are both seasoned professionals with a long history of service, and professionals never let anything interfere with responsibility and duty."