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Fire chief forced to step down

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett County Fire Department Chief Jack McElfish resigned his post Tuesday amid pressure from a new administration.

McElfish will receive six months' severance after his 30-days' notice, a package given to employees forced to retire.

"He was not moving in the direction I wanted him to go," County Administrator Jock Connell said. "I think we have had for years an outstanding fire department. It takes a special person to move it to the next level. ... I think the day you stop wanting to do better is the day you need to give up."

Connell took over as the county's chief operating officer a year ago, when Gwinnett's longtime county administrator retired. Connell said he has continued to evaluate employees since he was appointed. Last April, the local public utilities director was forced to resign.

"It was not a snap decision," Connell said. "It's very important to me that from a personnel standpoint, we're all moving in the same direction."

Just two and a half weeks ago, McElfish made a speech to his staff at the fire department's annual awards dinner.

"We've got the best fire department in the country. I'm so glad to be your head cheerleader," he said at the event. "I'm going to be here until he fires me."

McElfish was hired Oct. 19, 2002, leaving a job as chief of the fire department in Richmond, Va. His salary is listed at $121,072.

According to McElfish's personnel file, Connell sent a letter to the Department of Human Resources stating he did not agree with McElfish's self-appraisal - a performance review submitted into the computer system in error as an official performance review. Since Oct. 18, McElfish has been receiving a 2 percent pay increase, which Connell directed staff to reduce Friday.

According to the letter of resignation, McElfish's last day of work is March 9, but Connell said McElfish's resignation is immediate. He will be paid until the 30-day notice period has expired, and then receive his severance - $60,536, or six months salary, plus $6,985 for a sick leave payout.

Assistant Fire Chief Steve Rolader is acting as fire chief until Connell names a replacement. Rolader acted as chief while county officials conducted the last search for a leader, until McElfish landed the job.

Connell said he wanted a "strategic planner," who would be able to find ways to enhance service in a cost-effective manner.

Connell said he would not rush a decision and may consider a nationwide search.

"I'm more interested in getting it right than getting it done," he said.