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Special BOC meeting called in fire chief search

Jeff Turner

Jeff Turner

JONESBORO — A search for a new Clayton County fire chief has had its hiccups, but county commissioners are expected to take a move closer to naming a chief this week.

The commission has called a special meeting for Thursday, at 6 p.m. in the boardroom at its downtown Jonesboro office at 112 Smith St. The meeting is being held so commissioners can review fire chief applicants Human Resources Director Renee Bright is recommending for consideration.

Twenty-three people have applied for the position, commission Chairman Jeff Turner told Clayton News Daily during an exclusive interview last week. Turner lost a bid to get the commission to raise the educational qualifications for the position last month. However, last week he said the field is littered with candidates who exceed the qualifications he sought.

“We have some great candidates here,” said Turner. “We have some candidates who have been in the fire service for anywhere from 25 to 35 years, with several years of management experience, and who also possess master’s degrees in fire services or a related science.”

County officials have had a difficult time with the search to replace retired Chief Jeff Hood, who stepped down July 19. Turner had initially planned for the search to take one month, but the process had to start over from scratch in August after it was revealed Turner and Bright could not require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree without the commission’s consent.

The standing job description for the position sets the educational bar at only a high school diploma.

At the same time, Assistant Chief Landry Merkison filed a racial discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission because Fire Marshall Dwayne Jackson was named the department’s interim chief. Jackson is the department’s first African-American leader and Merkison is white.

Turner said discrimination has not worked its way into the job search, at least not on his part. He specifically said he is not trying to exclude Merkison from consideration despite the claims made in the EEOC complaint.

“Nobody is being singled out in this process,” said Turner.

Turner is not sure how long it will take to hire a fire chief. He said seven Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services employees, including Jackson, Merkison and Assistant Chief Blaine Clark, are among the applicants for the position. He had wanted, as recently as last week, a non-biased committee of residents and fire chiefs from other departments convened to review the applications and recommend three finalists for commissioners to interview.

Although the effort to raise the educational qualifications for the position was defeated in a 2-3 vote, Turner said he does not want to see political machinations shaping the decision. He wants the next permanent chief chosen solely on his or her qualifications and ability to do the job.

“Even though the board did not accept the higher standards with the job description, my hope is the board will still select the applicant for the position who is the most qualified, whether they are internal or external,” said Turner.