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Cohilas to retire from county posts

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

After 35 years of working for Clayton County, the county's fire chief, and chief of staff, Alex Cohilas, said he is ready to try something new -- after he does some household chores.

Cohilas notified county employees he will retire, effective Christmas Eve. His announcement came in an office memo dated Nov. 23. Cohilas told employees he was stepping down because of family-related issues, and to pursue other "opportunities." He added that his last day working in the county's offices will be Dec. 16.

"After careful consideration and much deliberation, I have decided to retire from Clayton County, both as fire chief and chief of staff," Cohilas wrote in his memo to employees. "It has been an honor, and a pleasure, to serve our community in a multitude of public safety capacities for 35 years. However, I have familial responsibilities I must fulfill, and certain aspirations and opportunities, I wish to pursue."

Clayton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell said no decisions have been made, yet, about who will replace Cohilas in either of his positions on an interim basis. Bell said he is not sure when decisions will be made.

On Monday, Cohilas said he expects the commissioners will move quickly to name an interim fire chief. But he was somewhat tight-lipped about his future endeavors. He said he has several possibilities, including doing some public safety consulting work, helping relatives who own a restaurant in another state, and starting his own business. He added, however, that it would be "premature" to say at this time what his long-term plans are.

Initially, however, he plans to do some home repairs that he said he has neglected for the last two years. He said he and his wife are also planning to take a trip to the Caribbean in mid-January.

"My immediate plan is to take the next two-to-three months to relax a little bit, and then, I'm going to weigh some options about my future," he said. No matter what he does, he plans to continue living in Clayton County, he added.

When asked why he decided to retire now, Cohilas said it was his age. He turned 55 on Oct. 30. Cohilas has worked for the Clayton County government in various capacities since March 1976. "I've worked for the county since I was 20," he said. "When you turn 55, you start thinking about new directions for your life ... I'd like to pursue some opportunities outside of government."

Cohilas has worked in the fire department since he began his tenure as a county employee. He was 45 when he was named the county's fire chief in June 2001, making him the youngest chief in the department's history, according to the county. In 2005, he was also named the director of the Clayton County Emergency Management Agency. The fire department and the emergency management agency were later merged into a single department, now known as Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services.

In the county's statement on Cohilas, county leaders credited him with expanding and upgrading the county's fire department by remodeling two older fire stations, and adding three new ones during his tenure. He was also cited for more than $8 million of upgrades to the fire-truck fleet, to make it one of the most "technologically advanced in the state."

He also established a Leadership Development Program within the fire department, to mentor department personnel and prepare them to move up into management positions. Clayton County firefighters also won seven world titles at the annual World Firefighter Combat Challenge competition.

"I know we have the best firefighters, paramedics and EMTs [Emergency Medical Technicians] in the state, if not the nation," Cohilas said.

Despite his successes, in December 2008, Cohilas became the subject of controversy, when Clayton's commissioners made him the county's chief of staff. That appointment had to be redone a few months later, after Eldrin Bell sued his fellow commissioners over the appointment.

A Clayton County Superior Court judge ruled the appointment was not properly done, but commissioners re-appointed Cohilas in early 2009. The commission turned to Cohilas to serve as chief of staff because of the "outstanding" job he had done as the county's fire chief, Commission Vice Chairman Wole Ralph said of the move.

"Each time the board has asked him to assist, Chief Cohilas has consistently risen to the occasion, and successfully executed his duties," Ralph said. "His retirement is a great loss for Clayton County government. However, the Board of Commissioners respects Chief Cohilas' decision, and we wish him all the best."

As chief of staff, Cohilas has been involved in some controversial decisions. One decision that generated much discussion, involved his oversight of an audit of the Clayton County Police Department in late 2009. It resulted in more than a dozen accusations of alleged mismanagement by former Clayton County Police Chief, Jeff Turner.

Cohilas said he felt he had done a good job at the task he was asked by county commissioners to do, which was to provide commissioners with facts and information on which they could make their decisions. He said any criticism he has taken for his performance as chief of staff comes with the territory.

"Criticism is part of the job," Cohilas said. "If someone thinks they can come in, and do this job, and never be criticized, then they are simply mistaken."

Several commission members offered their praise of Cohilas in the wake of his decision to retire, including Commission Chairman Bell.

Rather than focusing on what the county will lose with Cohilas' retirement, people should look at what the county gained from his tenure as fire chief, said Bell.

"We have gained a highly sophisticated group of young men and young women, dedicated to the service [of] the county," Bell said.