Retiring Cohilas brought order, controversy to Clayton County

Retiring Clayton County Fire Chief Alex Cohilas has attained a level of influence in this part of south metro Atlanta that is unmatched.

In addition to building a nationally recognized fire department, Cohilas was the right-hand man to the county commissioners, helping them in day-to-day affairs. He ascended to the role of chief of staff two years ago, without significant government experience outside of public safety, and at a time the county was under a spending freeze. The new post boosted Cohilas' salary to about $130,000.Cohilas also held sway over other county duties that, for instance, gave him the power to decide who received business licenses or built homes in the county.

Among those who know Cohilas or have worked under him are some ardent fans and some strong detractors. He is seen as a visionary who continually engages in innovative thinking, yet critics said he hasn't been open to others' ideas. Over the years, Cohilas raised money for charities and pushed for better building codes and an improved quality of life in Clayton. But some say he could be curt and intimidating to subordinates and vindictive to those whom he felt crossed him.

The son of a Greek immigrant, Cohilas started out as a rookie firefighter 35 years ago and makes no apologies about his years of service to the county.

"They wanted me to help streamline the other functions of government and squeeze out more performance," Cohilas said as he approached his Dec. 24 retirement. "I believe we made great strides in that regard in the last two years."

Commission Vice Chairman Wole Ralph said Cohilas was tapped as chief of staff  because of his work in building a world-class fire department. But the appointment wasn't universally accepted at first. Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell sued Cohilas and the other commissioners, saying they violated the County Charter and were trying to usurp Bell's power.

Jeff Turner, who as county police chief served under Cohilas, is among his detractors, although he also gives his former boss his due.

"We didn't always see eye to eye on his management techniques," Turner said. "He served so many years helping the citizens of Clayton County. He is to be commended for that."

County commissioners removed Turner as police chief last December because of a series of allegations ranging from insubordination to mishandling of sexual harassment complaints against officers and firearms that were unaccounted for. Many of the charges later proved to be unfounded. Turner was convinced Cohilas played a role in his removal.

"He was a direct cause of me being transferred from the police department," said Turner, who now teaches criminal justice at a local college.

Cohilas brushes that claim side.

"I could see where Jeff Turner would choose to believe that rather than face the truth that he was transferred by the Clayton County Board of Commissioners as a result of a fair and objective audit that was conducted by the internal auditing department of Clayton County government, which found serious deficiencies in the department under his command and control," he said.

Cohilas spent much of his early career juggling his duties as a firefighter with other jobs, which included working as a private investigator for a law firm and doing research for lawmakers. In June 2001, at 45, Cohilas became the youngest fire chief in the county's history. Four years later, he was named director of the county's Emergency Management Agency when commissioners put the agency under the fire department.

In charge of Clayton's Fire and Emergency Services, Cohilas expanded, improved and committed $8 million to the department's infrastructure, making it one of the newest and most technologically advanced in the state. He hired more than 100 people and set up a leadership development program to mentor and prepare fire department personnel for management jobs. On his watch, the department became more involved in the community, raising thousands of dollars over the years for various charities and won numerous awards.

David Wilson says he was one firefighter who crossed Cohilas and then felt his wrath. Wilson reported Cohilas to state officials for ignoring regulations and burning abandoned homes without the necessary permits. Wilson said he was demoted and endured several uncomfortable years in the department before retiring last year.

"He's a very vindictive man," Wilson said.

Cohilas replies, "David Wilson’s comments are patently false. If there was an ounce of truth to his false allegations, the state of Georgia would have cited the department and your paper would have reported it. The truth is David Wilson was demoted as a result of his poor performance and my decision was upheld by the Clayton County Civil Service Board."

Many elected officials officials praised Cohilas' service, even those who have had disputes with him in the past.

"Chief Cohilas has truly served the residents of Clayton County, " Bell said. "... I will miss both the man and the dedicated public servant."

Title: Clayton County fire chief, chief of staff

Age: 55

Annual salary: $127,777

Born: Jersey City, N.J.

Residence: Morrow

Education: High school graduate. Went to Atlanta trade school before joining the Fire Department. Attained all required training through state fire academy.

Post-retirement plans: "I'm going to take a little bit of time and catch my breath and spend time wth my family. My elderly father lives with us, and that's part of my familial responsibility. I also have some other career options in front of me, and I'm going to pursue them. I'd like to see what the next 10 to 12 years of my life hold."

Family: He and his wife, Terrie, have three sons and a daughter and five grandchildren.