JONESBORO — Clayton County commissioners are about to throw open the doors on their fire chief search and allow the public to watch the process as it unfolds from here on out.
Interim County Attorney Jack Hancock said commissioners have been given the names and applications of 10 semifinalists to review this weekend. Each commissioner is to whittle the list down to three choices and the commission, as a whole, will use those choices as a basis to determine three finalists for the position.
The names of the finalists will be announced during the Oct. 15 commission meeting, and will be interviewed publicly 21 days later, said Hancock.
“They have agreed to interview the finalists in open session at the Nov. 5 meeting,” said Hancock. “However, whether they vote that night or at a later date — that I don’t know. They didn’t decide when they would take a vote.”
The process to be used for interviewing candidates for the fire chief position is a rarity for the county commission. They have traditionally interviewed candidates for high profile positions in executive session. Chairman Jeff Turner said this will be the first time that he is aware of that the commission has chosen to do public interviews for such a position.
With the finalists to be named next week, and interviews set to take place in early November, there is a possibility the county could have a permanent fire chief in place by Thanksgiving.
Who is on the shortlist of 10 semifinalists, however, remains a mystery. Hancock said the shortlist isn’t available under Georgia’s open records law because the releasing of names — other than finalists whose names must be disclosed under the law — could put applicants’ current jobs in danger.
Human Resources Director Renee Bright chose the 10 semifinalists from a field of 23 applicants. Candidates had to have at least 10 years managerial experience in the fire services field and a high school diploma to be considered.
“I tried to look at a combination of all of the requirements,” said Bright.
What isn’t a mystery is the names of some of the people who didn’t make the list of 10 semifinalists. That’s because Turner questioned Bright why a couple of candidates, who he thought should have made the shortlist, did not advance in the process. Last week, Turner told the Clayton News Daily he had a list of candidates and their experience, but it did not tell him prior work history for external candidates.
“I have a list of the applicants and there were a couple of them who did not make the final cut, but they had extensive experience as well as managerial experience and the higher education,” Turner told Bright. “So for somebody who did not make the cut under the guidelines you just explained, why would that person not have made the top 10?”
Bright said the answer varied from candidate to candidate. In one case, she said, a majority of an applicant’s experience was as a volunteer.
One of the people Turner said he thought should have advanced in the process but didn’t make the semifinalists list was Clayton County fire Capt. William Cowart, an investigator and inspector with 25 years of fire services experience, including 20 years at a management level.
Turner said he wanted an explanation in public for why Cowart wasn’t part of the list of semifinalists.
“Based on my evaluation, it appeared that while he did have 20 years of what I was considering managerial experience, that included time as a sergeant,” said Bright. “His highest rank achieved was lieutenant, and while he is currently a TAD captain, that is very recent, and there were just others who had a higher rank and more managerial experience at a higher rank.”
What is also not clear is whether the two men who have emerged at the center of the ongoing search — interim fire Chief Dwayne Jackson and Assistant Chief Landry Merkison — are on the semifinalists list. Merkison has filed a racial discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, arguing he was not chosen as interim chief because he is white and Jackson is black.