BOC picks three local fire chief finalists

JONESBORO — The tenure of Clayton County’s first African-American fire chief will be a short one.

Interim fire chief Dwayne Jackson did not make the list of three finalists county commissioners want to interview next month for the permanent fire chief position, Human Resources Director Renee Bright announced late Tuesday.

The finalists are Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services Assistant Chief Landry Merkison, Riverdale Fire Chief Brenda Willis and Atlanta Fire Rescue Department Deputy Chief Wilmond Meadows. Commissioners approved the list of finalists by a 3-2 vote, with Commissioner Shana Rooks and Chairman Jeff Turner voting against it.

Commissioners will interview the finalists in public during their Nov. 5 meeting.

“There were several good candidates and some of those people within those three finalists are good candidates,” said Turner.

While Merkison had been expected to be a finalist, the exclusion of Jackson’s name from the list is a bit surprising since county employees had expected both men to be considered until the very end.

Turner said Jackson had been on his list of top three candidates because of his leadership of the department since former Chief Jeff Hood retired July 19. He said it was surprising the interim chief didn’t advance further in the search.

“The morale in the department had gone up while he was the interim chief and that was a big motivator for me,” said Turner.

He declined to name the other candidates on his shortlist, but he added none of them were among the chosen finalists.

“It’s like that,” said Turner.

With the interviews less than three weeks away, a new chief may be named Nov. 5 or Nov. 19. The commission is required by state law to wait at least 14 days after naming the finalists before it can take a vote to hire someone. By choosing to name the finalists Tuesday, the board gave themselves a 21-day waiting period before the interviews are conducted.

It remains to be seen what will happen to Jackson once a permanent chief is hired. He could return to his previous position of county fire marshal, but it’s possible his successor could also move him to a different position. He has led the department since previous fire Chief Jeff Hood retired July 19.

But if the omission of his name from the finalists list bothered Jackson, he didn’t let it show after the meeting. He exuded a cheerful demeanor with a broad smile as he quickly walked out of the meeting chambers with an equally upbeat Merkison.

“The madness is over,” Jackson exclaimed as he left the room.

Jackson did not always have an easy ride as interim chief. A month after he took the position, the commission narrowly passed a resolution that addressed his moving people around in the department. Some commissioners asserted the resolution merely asked Jackson to stop making changes. Others argued it was an indirect order to stop moving people.

Now the attention turns to the three finalists and their qualifications for the job.

Merkison is the most well-known candidate because he’s a homegrown product and because he was the fire department’s spokesman at one time. He’s a graduate of North Clayton High School and has an associate’s degree in architecture from what was then called Griffin Technical Institute, which is now known as Southern Crescent Technical College.

He applied for his first job with the fire department on March 23, 1995 and passed the county exam for the position n July of that year, according to his personnel file. His file also shows he began working for the county in 1996.

Before he was hired by the county, he was a firefighter and emergency medical technician with Riverdale Fire Services from September 1994 until March 1996. He was also a firefighter with the Jonesboro Volunteer Fire Department from January 1992 until September 1994.

Merkison had applied for the interim fire chief position and filed a racial discrimination complaint against the county with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging he was not chosen because he is white.

Turner said he did not believe the EEOC complaint was a factor in the selection of finalists.

Willis also has some local ties as the head of Riverdale’s fire department since January 2012. Through her position as fire chief, she is also Riverdale’s emergency management coordinator under the supervision of Police Chief Samuel Patterson.

She came to Riverdale after three decades with the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department, from March 1980 until she retired in June 2010. She worked her way up to eventually become Atlanta’s deputy fire chief. Prior to that, she was a firefighter with the LaGrange Fire Department from August 1977 until she was hired by Atlanta.

Meadows also brings an Atlanta tie to the slate of finalists. He has worked for Atlanta Fire Rescue since April 2006, and is the department’s chief of staff. Before he went to Atlanta, he was a part-time paramedic for Grady Health Systems from July 1990 until December 2005, according to his application.

He is a graduate of West Fulton High School in Atlanta, and holds an associates degree in fire management from DeKalb College, a bachelors degree in human resources management from Georgia State University and a masters degrees in public administration from Columbus State University.