By Joel Hall
Clayton County Interim Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas is not a candidate for elective office, but his co-titles as fire chief, and interim director of community development, were on the minds of candidates competing to become his boss.
Candidates vying for District 1 and District 4 county commission seats debating the necessity, and fairness of Cohilas holding multiple positions.
The comments came during a candidates' forum Monday night at Riverdale First United Methodist Church, hosted by the Clayton County NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
Improving the county's image, funding public transportation C-TRAN, and economic development, were included in discussions by District 1 candidate Joyce Baul, District 4 incumbent Commissioner Michael Edmondson, and District 4 candidates Dabouze Antoine, Lee Scott, and Jewel Scott. Shegale Crute, a candidate for District 1, was not present, but sent William Hill, a minister at Higher Living Church, to speak in her place on behalf of the campaign.
"The county has approximately 2,300 employees and like any corporation, you need more than one person running the show," said District 4 incumbent Edmondson, in defense of the county's chief of staff position.
Riverdale resident Lisa Tinch touched off the discussion of Cohilas' multiple county jobs.
"A chief of staff represents a person who reports directly to the chairman of the board, who manages the day-to-day operations of the 27 department heads that we have. It does not diminish the chairman's authority at all ... it's simply a tool by with the county can function more efficiently. That was a decision I supported and that I still support," said Edmondson.
Tinch, who claimed during the forum the county illegally demolished her home, questioned why any one department head should have administrative oversight of another.
"What are you all going to do about the fire chief having three positions in this county," Tinch said. "It's not voted on? The fire chief should not have that position. He should not be the fire chief and ( in charge of) planning and zoning."
Cohilas' position was created by the board in December of 2008, followed in January of 2009 with a series of departmental changes, which resulted in his multiple titles.
As chief of staff, planning and zoning matters come before Cohilas before making their way to the board.
Hill, who spoke on behalf of the Crute campaign, said allowing department heads to have multiple positions creates the appearance of favoritism.
"One of the changes we have to make about Clayton County Board of Commissioners is that it has to be government for the people, all the people, and not just of the select people, from personal favoritism to back-room deals," Hill said.
District 4 candidate Antoine said he didn't believe one staff person should have so much power.
"Who is watching the watchers?" Antoine said. "There are some of us that are not even working."
District 1 challenger, Baul, questioned whether Cohalis' post is valid.
"... (Is) this position... necessary in light of the fact that you have a chairman and four other commissioners, why would you need somebody between them," Baul said. "[If elected] I would certainly look at the law to see if it is a valid position and go from there to see whether it is still needed."
Lee Scott and Jewel Scott ,a husband and wife running against Edmondson, alleged corruption stems from multiple offices to Cohilas, and other department heads.
"It was very strange to me that as a fire chief, he [Cohilas] could be a campaign manager for an opponent of mine," said Jewel Scott, who lost a bid for re-election to the District Attorney's office in 2008. "I instituted a unit that looked into government corruption, and that would not be something I would hesitate to implement again if I had the opportunity on the board."
Cohilas served as campaign manager for Herbert Adams, a political opponent of Jewel Scott in the 2008 election.
Edmondson, was among other candidates who said he would like to see the county spread its titles among more people, "I support the position of chief of staff ..."he explained later.
"I think Cohilas is the best person for the job," Edmonson said. "I look forward to the time that we hire a permanent fire chief, who is different from the permanent chief of staff, who is different from the permanent director of community development. Ultimately, I think those positions should be filled by three different individuals."