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Jackson hires new attorney position

jacksonAfter more than four years as Jackson County’s attorney, Jay Coward will soon yield his spot as the county’s legal face. But commissioners aren’t replacing him with another contract attorney. Rather, they’ve opted to create a new staff position.

After nearly seven months of applications, interviews and discussion about the merits of a staff position, commissioners last week announced that Heather Baker, a Jackson County native who currently works at Coward, Hicks & Siler’s Franklin office, will become the county’s first-ever staff attorney. 

“In the long run I think it will save money because she’ll handle much more of the legal load than what we were allowing for the current county attorney handling,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. 

The county will pay substantially more for the staff position than the average $65,000 it had been spending for Coward’s part-time services — Baker will receive a salary of $86,180 and $22,760 in benefits. However, the salary is less than what an attorney with Baker’s experience could expect to make in the private sector. 

“It’s not all about salary or finances,” Baker said of her decision to take the job. “Really I think it’s more important that you enjoy what you’re doing and do something helpful and important.” 

Baker will be responsible for more than just attending to county commissioners’ needs, as Coward did. She’ll handle backlogged foreclosures, advise on the front end of county projects and possibly provide backup legal assistance for the Department of Social Services and the Sheriff’s Office, though these departments will both continue contracting their legal needs. 

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“It’s just going to be a more integrated position, and that will be a benefit,” Baker said. “I’ll be easily accessible, and I think that’s going to make it a lot better for everyone.”

Baker currently lives in Cullowhee and works for the same firm as Coward. Though the two work from separate locations, she has filled in for Coward on county business a few times during recent months. She’s also become familiar with county issues through her marriage to Scott Baker, who is vice-president of the Jackson County Planning Board and headed up the Cullowhee Community Planning Committee. Commissioners eventually accepted a version of zoning standards the committee drafted. 

Baker’s varied professional history also bolstered her bid for the job, McMahan said. A graduate of University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s law school, she’s served as assistant district attorney for the seven western counties, worked in multiple practice areas at her current law firm and serves as an attorney advocate for Jackson County’s guardian ad litem program. She’s president of the Great Smokies Health Foundation and a board member at REACH of Macon County as well as child advocacy organizations AWAKE and KIDS Place. 

“Her qualifications speak for themselves,” McMahan said. “She’s a very qualified attorney with 20 years of experience in a lot of different realms. She’s an extremely intelligent individual.”

The county received six applications for the position, with none of the eight people who applied when the county advertised the contract position in December — Coward among them — sending in their résumés for the staff position. 

At last week’s commissioners meeting, Coward expressed his understanding of the decision to hire Baker and assured the board that he has no hard feelings. 

“I’ve had a lot of fun and I’ve really enjoyed this job — I hope the experiment works,” Coward said. 

After wrapping up her practice, Baker will start her new job fulltime Oct. 1, with part-time work beginning Sept. 15. Coward has agreed to work with the county through the transition. 

— News editor Jessi Stone contributed to this report

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