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BOC changes business license appeals process

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners made a change to the way business licenses in the county are revoked, which might seem like a minor shift, but is a significant change from the past.

The commissioners unanimously approved an ordinance that strips the authority to hear appeals of business licenses revocations from the county chief of staff, a position which no longer exists. The ordinance now entrusts that authority to an administrative law judge, rather than County Manager Wade Starr, whose position replaced the chief of staff position.

The administrative judge will be an attorney, who will be appointed by commissioners to sit on a panel of approximately four potential judges for the appeals, according to Starr.

“I chose to not to want to do that,” Starr said, “so we changed it to hire attorneys as hearing officers, because they are more versed in the law.”

Starr’s decision to not hear license revocation appeals stands in stark contrast to former county Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas, whose position preceded Starr’s job.

Cohilas also served as the county’s interim community development director for a period while he was chief of staff. As community development director, he had the ability to revoke a business’ license. As chief of staff, he had the power to hear appeals of his own revocation decisions.

Cohilas was replaced as interim community development director, with a full-time director, in July 2010. He stepped down from his other positions , as chief of staff and fire chief, when he retired from county employment last December.

Business license revocations are a rare occurrence, Starr said, but he added that they generally happen when a business has violated county ordinances, such as when minors are frequently served alcohol in the business, or when it regularly exceeds occupancy limits.

For that reason, Starr said it was a good idea to have someone with legal expertise to handle those issues. “It’s a serious action to revoke a business license, and it was my recommendation that we get somebody well-versed in the law, to be fair and unbiased,” Starr said.

Starr said that some business owners could have made the argument that there would be a conflict of interest, if he presided over appeals, because he oversees many county departments, including the community development department.

“I think the fact that I would be in a quasi-supervisory position, over the people who were actually recommending a revocation, could be viewed by some as unfair,” the county manager said. “So, not only do we have the question of legal expertise, but the perception of fairness.”

Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said he wants to get the panel of attorneys assembled “as quickly as possible.” He added that while he was concerned that using a panel of attorneys could be expensive, he agreed to this method, because he also wanted the county to have a system that was fair to business owners.

“I always ascribe to the fairest method possible when dealing with businesses,” Bell said. “This will add to the fairness.”