JONESBORO — Clayton County commissioners were split Tuesday over an effort to raise the qualifications for four public safety-related department head positions to require college educations and the proposed changes failed as a result.
The positions of police chief, fire chief, prison warden and indigent defense director require applicants have no more than a high school diploma or GED. Chairman Jeff Turner has been pushing to raise those standards so they can be filled by people with college degrees as they become vacant.
There are 22 department head positions in county government, he said, and those four positions are the only ones that don’t require a college degree. The positions came up for a vote separately and each time, the proposed changes were defeated by 2-3 votes.
“I was hoping this board would uphold higher standards,” said Turner. “Clayton County citizens deserve the very best candidates in the directors who we select and by us accepting minimum standards in such important positions as those concerning our public safety and welfare, I have an issue with that.”
Commission Vice-Chairman Michael Edmondson and commissioners Sonna Singleton and Gail Hambrick voted against raising the standards for the police chief, warden and indigent defense director. Turner, Singleton and Hambrick voted against the proposed fire chief change after it was altered to take effect after an ongoing search to fill the position is completed.
Turner said the intention of requiring college degrees for the positions was to bring them up to national and metro Atlanta standards.
The requirement changes have become the center of a controversy regarding the search for a new fire chief. Applications for the job were originally accepted on the basis that applicants had to have a college degree because Turner and Human Resources officials thought they could up the requirements without the commission’s approval.
But, Assistant Chief Landry Merkison filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging he was not named the fire department’s interim chief because he is white. Fire Marshall Dwayne Jackson, who is black, was named interim chief.
At the same time, Turner and Human Resources officials realized they needed the commission’s permission to raise the qualifications for the permanent fire chief. They attempted to bring it to the commission earlier this month for approval, but it was delayed until this week, so all four positions could be considered together.
They also had to scrap the previous search and start over from scratch.
And, the complaint and the desire to raise standards became intertwined and commissioners became cautious about how they handled the fire chief search. Rooks asked Human Resources Director Renee Bright how the search would be impacted if the education requirement was changed immediately.
Bright said the fire chief job would have to be re-posted for people to apply for if the new requirements were approved. Rooks then made a motion to approve the change with the caveat that the change not go into effect until the end of December, after a permanent fire chief would likely be hired.
“Given that we have a process going on now, I have a problem changing it midstream,” said Rooks.
Edmondson concurred with Rooks Thursday that the EEOC complaint meant the fire chief requirements should not be raised until after a permanent chief is hired.
He said there was nothing “sinister” about the way the vote was split. He explained that he voted against the police chief, warden and indigent defense director changes because he had previously been under the impression the changes would not go into effect until the end of December.
As presented, those changes, like the original version of the proposed fire chief change, would have gone into effect immediately.
Had Turner agreed to the delay in implementing the fire chief change, it could have been approved. However, he said the current search should be treated the same way future searches will be treated.
“I voted against it because I need it right now,” said Turner. “I expect that if we’re going to hire somebody, let’s hire somebody with the highest standards we can find.”
As for how the vote will impact the fire chief search, Turner said there shouldn’t be an impact. He had previously said the search should take a month once it begins, but he said Tuesday it is unclear how much longer it will last.