New Clayton County fire Chief Landry Merkison receives congratulations from residents after he was named to the position Tuesday. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)
JONESBORO — Landry Merkison has held several ranks in Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services over the years, but he got to add the highest rank of all to that list Tuesday.
The Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted 3-0-2 to name Merkison the county’s new fire chief after an arduous — and sometimes contentious — four-month search. Chairman Jeff Turner and Commissioner Shana Rooks abstained rather than participate in the vote.
Merkison, a native of the Riverdale area, came to the department as a fire fighter in 1996 and he’s moved up the ladder to ranks such as master firefighter, captain, battalion chief and assistant chief since then. He’s also worked under three other Clayton County fire chiefs over the years.
So how easy will it be to get used to just being the chief?
“It’ll take a minute,” said Merkison.
Merkison was chosen over Riverdale fire Chief Brenda Willis and East Point fire Chief Rosemary Cloud for the position. He will lead a department of about 367 employees who annually respond to more than 33,000 calls to fight fires and respond to emergencies. He will also oversee an operating budget of about $25 milion.
But, the road to Merkison’s hiring wasn’t an uneventful one.
Over the last four months, there were accusations — made by Merkison — that he wasn’t named interim fire chief because of racial discrimination. Unrest in the department, stirred up under previous chiefs, came to light during the process and there were claims of wrongdoing in the department.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, a former department employee handed out flyers critical of Merkison, former Chief Alex Cohilas and commission Vice-Chairman Michael Edmondson. When a current firefighter showed the flyer to commissioners during the meeting, Edmondson and Commissioner Gail Hambrick read it and laughed.
Interim Chief Dwayne Jackson was also told by commissioners not to make any changes in the department. The commission was also split over the issue of what educational qualifications the chief should hold.
After Tuesday’s public interviews of the finalists and a recess of commissioners into executive session to discuss the candidates, Merkison was relieved after it was all over.
“It is a long process and I’m glad it’s done, but it was a learning experience for me,” said Merkison. “I’ve grown a lot through this process and, you know what, at the end of the day it’ll make me a stronger chief, and make me a stronger leader and that’s what matter to the citizens of this county.”
As he addressed commissioners during his interview, the new chief didn’t shy away from addressing the tensions and divisions in the department that emerged in recent months.
“This department needs a healing, and it needs it quick,” Merkison said. “One thing that I’ve always strove for is to be accessible to the men and women of this department. I am a firm believe that there is value in opinions across all levels of the fire department rank structure. I want me and my staff to accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Merkison does have support within the department. Dozens of firefighters attended Tuesday’s meetings, and stayed in the back of the meeting chambers. Several of them stood up and showed their support for Merkison as they spoke to commissioners during a public comment period.
Longtime fire department employee Jay Fordham summed up those feelings by touting Merkison’s long ties to the the department.
“Chief Merkison is a product of our county and we feel like he’s the one to lead us in the future,” said Fordham.