An attorney for everyone

Jay Coward, newly hired to serve as Jackson County’s attorney, will receive $175 an hour, commissioners agreed in a unanimous vote this week.

He’ll also serve the sheriff’s department when the sheriff and his deputies need legal advice.

Coward, a Republican, replaces Paul Holt, a Democrat. The change is one of the outcomes of the upending of Democrats and their long hold on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. Voters in November sent three Democrats packing, and elected Jack Debnam, an officially registered but GOP-backed-Independent chairman, and Charles Elders and Doug Cody, Republicans, in the ousted Democrats’ place.

Democrat Sheriff Jimmy Ashe seemed thrilled Coward was again part of the county government family. He lauded the longtime attorney and former commissioner for bringing a breadth of wisdom and experience to the county’s law needs.

Additionally, Coward served as an excellent reason for Ashe to dump his own hand-selected attorney, Mark Welch. Coward, Ashe said, “will be able to accommodate our needs.”

In 2008, the sheriff requested commissioners (Democrats all, then) give him a full-time sheriff’s attorney. They said OK. The sheriff’s department attorney answered directly to Ashe, and, according to the sheriff’s department website, helped with daily legal matters.

This week, however, what was once cited as a critical need (rising foreclosures, among other reasons) gave way to, the sheriff said, more pressing department priorities.

Welch was paid $67,237 a year. With a cost savings of more than $9,000 tied to his erasure as a county employee, commissioners went along willingly with Ashe. But not before new Commissioner Doug Cody queried the sheriff on this change of heart.

Cody asked if Ashe’s newfound ability to rely on the county attorney for legal advice meant the foreclosure rate had decreased. No, Ashe replied, it is still increasing in Jackson County.

But property crime is also escalating. And some of the savings, with commissioners’ approval, went to fund a realignment of sheriff’s department personnel. Those changes, Ashe said, will help the department in its fight against crime — more, apparently than a staff attorney would.

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