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Racial discrimination alleged in fire chief search

Jeff Turner

Jeff Turner

JONESBORO — Clayton County commissioners have been accused of racial discrimination in their search for a new fire department leader, officials have confirmed.

The commission appointed fire marshal Dwayne Jackson as interim fire chief month, to replace retiring Chief Jeff Hood. Jackson was chosen over other fire department employees who had put their name into the hat for the interim job.

One of those other candidates, reportedly Assistant Chief Landry Merkison, filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last week, claiming discrimination is why he didn’t get the job, according to Jackson.

Jackson, the department’s first black leader, would not confirm whether Merkison, who is white, filed the complaint. Both are believed to have applied for the permanent position as well.

“One of our employees who I guess you could say applied for the fire chief position, filed an EEOC complaint of discrimination,” said Jackson.

The complaint is just one factor in what has become a quagmire for county leaders as they search for a permanent fire chief. There had been a possibility of a permanent chief being named Tuesday, but commission Chairman Jeff Turner said other factors have set the process back for at least a month.

He also said it appears the fire chief decision will be shaped by internal politics.

“It was my desire to leave politics out of it,” said Turner. “That is the main reason why I wanted an unbiased person to go through the applications and make a selection, but politics is playing a big part in this and it’s probably going to affect the outcome of who the next fire chief is going to be.”

A key holdup was that commissioners couldn’t agree in a work session if they should move forward with setting new requirements for the fire and police chief positions. Because of a back-and-forth discussion that left no clear consensus on the matter, it was pulled from the meeting agenda and held until an unspecified date.

Both positions require only a high school diploma or GED and 10 years experience in their respective fields. Those requirements aren’t high enough for positions that oversee public safety in the county, said Turner. He said 17 of the county’s 21 department head positions require a college degree.

“Our librarian requires a master’s degree, the community development director requires a master’s degree and building and maintenance requires a bachelor’s degree,” said Turner. “So why is it that we don’t require higher standards in our public safety arena, where the expectation is saving lives and property?”

The proposed new requirements would have given preference to candidates with a college degree and at least 10 years of firefighting and management experience. Candidates who only had a high school diploma or GED could still be considered, but only if they had 20 years experience in their respective fields, including at least 15 years at a management level.

Changing those requirements would have left the prison warden and public defender positions as the only ones that required only a high school-level education. Vice-Chairman Michael Edmondson recommended the commissioners hold off on upping the requirements for the fire and police chief so all four could be raised at the same time.

Edmondson also raised questions about the complaint and what impact it might have in the search.

Merkison’s attorney, Harlan Miller, was unavailable for comment Wednesday or Thursday morning.

As far as the complaint is concerned, Turner said he has not yet been served with it, but he called it “baseless” based on his understanding of what it states.

Turner said Human Resources Director Renee Bright reviewed applications and brought forward candidates who met the qualifications that had been set out for the position.

He did say he and Bright used the higher standards calling for a college degree because they had mistakenly thought they could set those requirements without seeking approval from commissioners. Turner and Bright can change job descriptions for non-director-level positions without board approval, and they mistakenly thought they could do the same with department heads as well, he explained.

“There were some things we could have done better and there were some things we should have gotten the whole board involved in,” said Turner.

But the race of candidates was not looked at in the hiring process, he continued.

“There is no entitlement from anyone to say that’s supposed to be my position, so in my opinion that’s baseless,” said Turner. “Did he meet the qualifications or not? That’s my whole priority.”

Because of the whole situation, anyone interested in pursuing the position will have to reapply and will be evaluated based on the requirements which call for only a high school diploma or GED.

“If it wasn’t done right, then we owe it to [applicants] to do it right,” said Turner. “It’s not about excluding anybody or being unfair, but then again, I can’t emphasize enough that we want the most qualified candidate that we can find to lead this fire department.”

Jackson said he has no comment on the job requirements, other than to say, “I meet the qualifications either way.”

The situation also has the attention of current and former employees of the fire department. One former paramedic expressed concerns she said her former colleagues have about the search during the commission’s public comment period Tuesday.

Afterwards, the employee, Janice Kochevar, who now works for the Forest Park Fire Department, said there had been an atmosphere of retaliation under previous chiefs. She left the department last year after 11 years and described what she called “a hostile environment to work in.”

In July, complaints about morale in the department was one factor Turner said he weighed when considering who to recommend for the interim position.

Kochevar voiced her support for Jackson saying she thought he would be good for department morale if selected.