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BOC may restore chief of staff job

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Despite the threat of more litigation, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners may take steps to re-establish the chief of staff position soon.

The decision comes on the heels of a ruling Thursday by Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield that the board created the position, and appointed Fire Chief Alex Cohilas to it, improperly.

An ordinance that would amend the Clayton County Code to allow for the creation an "unclassified chief of staff position" is listed as a "pending" item on the agenda for the Tuesday, March 17, regular business meeting. The meeting agenda was sent out to media representatives on Friday evening.

On Thursday, Benefield ruled in favor of BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell in a lawsuit he filed against his fellow commissioners and Cohilas in January. In the suit, Bell challenged the creation of the chief of staff position.

Commissioner Michael Edmondson, who championed the creation of the position in December, said he wants the ordinance reintroduced at "the earliest date possible."

"The first time we would be able to read it is Tuesday, and we will possibly vote on it in April," he said. "I believe that the chief of staff is very positive for Clayton County. I think it has been very well-received from staff and constituents. I have every intention of supporting this within the state statutes outlined by Judge Benefield, at the earliest possible convenience."

Edmondson said he saw "no reason to deviate" from the creation of a chief of staff, as long as the board is "compliant with the law." To create the position, the ordinance would have to be adopted twice at two separate, consecutive, regular business meetings.

Bell, who challenged the position as an usurpation of his powers as chairman, deferred all comments on the matter to his attorney on Friday.

Bell's lawyer, Frank Jenkins, said re-establishing the position using the same methodology would "be a defiant decision in the face of the ruling by the Superior Court." He said he would strongly consider taking the board to court again, if it were to reinstate a chief of staff position.

"To have the board appoint a chief of staff without the chairman appointing him runs contradictory to the laws of Clayton County," said Jenkins. "That's where the board went awry ... they gave the chief of staff more powers than the law allows. I'm hoping the board will consider the olive branch that Chairman Bell has offered to work things out, instead of just acting in defiance."

Commissioner Wole Ralph, who supported both the creation of a chief of staff position and appointing Cohilas to the job, said "establishing a chief of staff position incorrectly would be defiant of Judge Benefield's ruling." But, he said he would support the re-appointment of Cohilas as chief of staff, as long as it is done legally.

"All of the feedback that I have gotten has been positive, as it relates to the need for the position and the person in the position," Ralph said. "It's expedited a lot of issues that have come before the board. It's allowed for greater communication of the day-to-day activities with the commissioners. I wouldn't see any reason why I wouldn't support it going forward."

Jenkins acknowledged that another lawsuit would spend more taxpayers' dollars on litigation. While he is prepared to go back to court, Jenkins said he is open to negotiations between Bell and the other members of the board.

"I think it's worth the taxpayers' money for the chairman to serve as chairman," he said. "That is the person they elected. It would be so much better to sit at the table and to come to some resolution as to the authority of the chairman and the authority of the board."

Edmondson said that he had not received information from his attorney about the possibility of Bell filing another lawsuit and would not comment on that aspect.

Ralph said he would prefer for the chairman and the board to reach a compromise. "I'm willing to sit down at the table and speak with the chairman about his thoughts regarding this position and come up with an agreement on how we move forward," he said. "When those types of discussions take place, anything is possible. I would rather that be the course of action, rather than filing lawsuits."