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Jackson extends county attorney contract, considers creating staff position

Jay Coward will keep his job as Jackson County attorney — for five more months, at least. 

When a new board of commissioners took over in December, they put out a call for applications to select a new attorney, pulling in a list of eight candidates, including Coward.

But commissioners didn’t choose any of the new candidates, and they didn’t even discuss their comparative qualifications at their annual retreat Jan. 21 or regular meeting Jan. 29. Rather, they elected to keep Coward on while they spent some time tackling the bigger question: “What if we hired someone as a full-time staff attorney and put them on staff as opposed to contracting?” asked Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. 

Right now, the board hires a contract attorney to handle its legal matters, but a staff attorney could do more than just represent commissioners, McMahan said. That person could also help with legal needs at the Department of Social Services, Jackson County Jail and the Sheriff’s Department. 

“That person could serve as a public information officer,” McMahan said. “They could help write news releases. They would be great in helping with human resources, dealing with personnel management decisions.”

The idea met a favorable reception with the majority of board members at their Jan. 21 retreat, where it was first discussed. Coward, however, cautioned that a staff position might not attract the caliber of attorney that Jackson County needs. 

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“You can just about guarantee if you get somebody on staff for a county the size of Jackson, you’re probably going to get somebody who’s inexperienced,” Coward said. 

Coward has been practicing law for more than 30 years, and his $200 per hour fee is about half of what he charges everyone else. On average, the county pays about $65,000 per year for his part-time services. By contrast, the salary for an attorney just out of law school at Coward’s firm is $44,000. He gives the county such a big break, he said, because he loves the place and he loves the work. 

“You’re already getting a bargain, and for someone who loves his county and loves his job, those intangibles are hard to get with a staff attorney,” Coward said. “They just are.”

Commissioner Charles Elders echoed Coward’s concerns — “I think we oughta stick with a reliable firm,” he said — and County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners that for a county Jackson’s size, “it is truly more an exception than a rule to have a full-time attorney.” Buncombe County has one, but its population and legal needs are much larger. Macon County used to have one but now contracts, and both Haywood and Swain counties use contracted attorneys as well. 

But Commissioner Vicki Greene said that, while the salary might be lower than what a staff attorney could earn in the private sector, the regular work hours and job stability would sweeten the pot. Add to that the fact that attorneys have been facing a tough job market in recent years, and it might not be as tough a sell as Coward made it out to be. 

Commissioners will study the issue over the coming months with the goal of advertising the staff position — if that’s what they decide to go with — sometime in April in order to have that person begin work with the new fiscal year July 1. If they decide to stick with a contract attorney, commissioners will likely consider the same slate of eight candidates that replied to the initial request for applications. 

The vote to extend Coward’s contract for five months more was unanimous. 

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