Clayton voter-mandated reforms under siege?

Two years ago, Clayton County voters chose a commission chairman who campaigned on the promise of increased transparency, more professionalism and renewed accountability in local government.

Jeff Turner, former Clayton police chief, saw his election as a mandate for change, and he didn’t hesitate. He fired the county manager and ordered an independent financial audit of the county’s nearly two dozen departments. He moved the public comment period from the end of commission meetings to the beginning. He brought in two new top administrators — one to oversee the county’s finances, the other to run day-to-day operations.

For a while, the momentum seemed unstoppable. Then he started to run into roadblocks. Some of his decisions were unexpectedly reversed by members of the commission, and the board has split over key appointments. In recent months, the divide, which often breaks down into a 3-2 vote, appears to have only deepened, culminating with last month’s firing of the chief operating officer.

Arrelle Anderson, one of Turner’s crucial hires, was abruptly fired. The commission voted 3-2 last week to replace her with a veteran county administrator who has found himself at odds with Turner in the past.

Alex Cohilas, who served as chief of staff and the county’s fire chief before retiring in 2010, reported to work Wednesday — less than 24 hours after commissioners sparred over whether to hire him. His contract is for six month. He will earn about $65,000 during that time.

Cohilas’ swift return to Clayton government is seen by some as a way to undermine Turner.

“This reeks of a takeover,” the Rev. Jeff Benoit told the commissioners last week during their meeting. Shortly after his comments, Benoit said, he was ushered out of the building by five police officers for being “unruly.”

“At times, it does seem that there is some type of divide,” Turner conceded. “But it seems to be centered around certain issues, such appointments and (educational) qualifications.”

As the two newest commissioners, Turner said, he and Shana Rooks “bring new ideas and a different mindset from the other two (commissioners Gail Hambrick and Sonna Gregory). They’ve been used to doing things the way they’ve been doing it for the last six years.”

Rooks also downplayed the matter: “I don’t know if I’d classify it as a divide. I guess we have a right to vote the way we choose.” The three remaining commissioners declined to comment.

In the 22 months since Turner became Clayton’s top elected official, the board has been split over key appointments and directions to take the county. Often, Turner and Rooks align on one side and Hambrick and Gregory on another. Michael Edmondson has acted as a swing vote, but has lately voted more with Hambrick and Gregory.

Last November, the board appointed veteran fire department employee Landry Merkison chief after a contentious hiring process. The board also squabbled over what educational qualifications a fire chief should possess. Turner and Rooks ended up abstaining from the vote.

According to the minutes, Turner “abstained because he could not vote in good conscience for any candidate chosen from a flawed evaluation process from the onset.”

Some worry that such political battles could divert county leaders from focusing on getting the county’s newly won transportation system in place, a task that is likely to consume much of county management’s attention over the next year and beyond.

“It’s nothing more than a power struggle that’s going on now,” Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day said, noting that she has observed the bloc voting that’s recently pitted Chairman Turner and commissioner Rooks against commissioners Edmondson, Hambrick and Gregory. Edmondson and Gregory were re-elected last week to another term in office.

When asked what she believes is the root cause of the rift, Day said, “I wish I knew.”

But she added that the board’s turmoil is working against the wishes of many citizens and the county’s need to repair its image.

“Chairman Turner was elected by over 70 percent of the voters to be the chairman and leader of our county. Jeff was given a mandate to make some changes. … He needs to be allowed to do that. I don’t feel he’s being allowed to do that.”

A significant fracture within the board began to emerge around the time of the July 5 special-called meeting in which the board voted to put the MARTA referendum on the November ballot.

Ten days later, Edmondson, who was opposed to the measure, introduced a resolution to strip the chairman of his authority to unilaterally convene special-called meetings. He wanted to force the chairman to have the agreement of two other commissioners. That proposal died.

Edmondson, Hambrick and Gregory haven’t said why they decided to replace Anderson with Cohilas. Cohilas answers to the full board, but he reports directly to Turner, the sole full-time commissioner. The two will have to work together on a daily basis.

It’s a tall order for both men who share an acrimonious history that stems from Turner’s days as Clayton police chief. At the time, Cohilas served as chief of staff to then-chairman Eldrin Bell. Turner reported to Cohilas. Turner was accused of mismanaging the police department. Turner said Cohilas had him transferred to oversee the police academy, which was later closed, forcing Turner into retirement and effectively ending his two decades in law enforcement. The allegations of mismanagement were later determined to be unfounded.

Despite that history, both men told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they’re willing to forge a working relationship for the good of the county.

“I believe in giving everybody an opportunity to do the right thing,” Turner said. “Until he proves me wrong, we’ll be able to move the county forward. As long he comes in doing what’s expected of him, I feel confident we can continue to move the county forward.”

Cohilas cited his role as Bell’s chief of staff as a precedent for his new role as COO.

“Chairman Bell wasn’t too happy when the chief of staff position was created,” Cohilas said. “(But) he and I had a fine relationship. I have a long proven track record with being able to work with anyone and everyone, regardless of their feelings toward me. The needs of this community are far more important than any one person’s feelings or emotions. I want to see the county prosper. We’re struggling as a community. We need to take some real firm action to turn some things around.”