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Politics aside, county attorney search conducted out of fairness in Jackson

Jackson County commissioners will decide in the coming weeks whether to keep Jay Coward on board as their county attorney.

Commissioners will consider other candidates in January. Coward said he will put his name back in the hat and hopes to stay on board.

“Absolutely. I really enjoy it,” Coward said.

However, the county has heard from several other attorneys who say they are interested as well, according to County Manager Chuck Wooten.

The county attorney position is up in the air following an upset election in the county commissioners race this fall. Democrats took majority control of the board by a 4-to-1 margin. Coward is a Republican but says party affiliation has no bearing on the relationship with commissioners.

“No. Never. That is something I am proud of. In order to be professional, you have to leave politics out of the equation,” Coward said.

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Coward said he would never try to lead commissioners one way or the other based on his personal views.

“I know what they are looking for from the county attorney and what they don’t want to hear from the attorney,” Coward said, citing his own experience as a commissioner in the 1990s. “I try to identify as many options as possible for them to chose from.”

Nonetheless, Coward’s tenure as county attorney came on the heels of an upset commissioner election four years ago: Democrats lost the majority on the board, the county attorney at the time retired, and Coward was hired.

Now, Democrats are back in control on the board.

Coward said the political changing of the guard is beside the point.

“They felt like if there was more than one person interested they should put it out there,” Coward said.

Coward has a private law practice in Sylva and is a well-known attorney in the region. He hails from the Coward family legal dynasty — an array of uncles and cousins that populate legal circles in Jackson and Macon counties.

Coward bills the county $200 an hour, likely a discount rate for an attorney of Coward’s caliber.

The county hasn’t gotten any formal applications yet. The deadline to do so is Jan. 2.

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