Bill Cowan gets new contract as county manager

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Jessie Burchette

Salisbury Post

Bill Cowan will receive a base salary of $151,500 annually as county manager under a new contract negotiated with the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners and Cowan spent about 40 minutes Thursday evening negotiating the contract — and did it all in public.

Cowan, 54, who retired as county manager in Lee County, came to Rowan in August 2005 on an interim basis following the firing of Tim Russell.

Last month, commissioners decided to forgo a nationwide search and strike a deal to keep Cowan.

Chairman Arnold Chamberlain lauded Cowan for his willingness to conduct business in public. Under the N.C. Open Meetings Law, the board could have conducted the negotiations behind closed doors.

Commissioner Jim Sides, who cast the lone vote against the new contract, was the first to congratulate Cowan, emphasizing his vote was not personal. The new contract is actually a memorandum of understanding with a series of nine bullet items in plain English.

Commissioner Tina Hall led the board through the memorandum, which was patterned after a document from Forsyth County, which recently hired a new manager.

She got a copy while checking out how the county televises board meetings.

Hall described it as very straightforward. Other commissioners agreed that they liked the format.

Two elements of the memo drew extensive discussion.

The $151,000 annual salary, along with about $20,000 in costs, including retirement, drew some debate.

Sides wanted a lower figure. “I like Mr. Cowan; he has done a great job for Rowan County,” said Sides. “My obligation is to the taxpayers of Rowan County.”

Other commissioners said the county has to pay the market rate for a manager with Cowan’s experience.

“We’re getting our money’s worth,” Vice Chairman Chad Mitchell said. “Mr. Cowan has saved the county tens of thousands of dollars. He is saving money for Rowan County.”

Responding to questions from Sides, Cowan said he will no longer get the $600-a-month car allowance. Instead, he will get the same mileage reimbursement given other county employees.

Commissioners spent much of the session focusing on rewording the potential severance package. As written, the manager would get six months of benefits and a lump sum payment of six months of salary. The contract said the manager would not get any benefits or salary if he is terminated “due to some misconduct on the part of the manager.”

Board members recalled the problems with the previous manager’s contract that provided for more than a year’s salary unless he was convicted of a felony for personal gain.

“That’s wide open,” said Barber, referring to the “some misconduct” phrase.

Sides proposed a possible way out that offered the manager some security against a political firing. He suggested that if the board voted 5-0 for termination, the severance package would be one month. If the vote was 4-1 for termination, the package would be 3 months. If the vote was 3-2, the manager would get a full six months.

After extensive discussion, commissioners consulted County Attorney Jay Dees.

He recommended dropping the “some misconduct” phrase. Instead, he suggested wording that the manager would not receive any benefits or salary if his termination is due to criminal conduct or a violation of the International County Managers Association’s code of ethics as determined by the Board of Commissioners.

Cowan and county commissioners agreed to that wording.

Other elements of the contract include:

* Cowan must move his primary residence to Rowan County within a year.

* The contract is open-ended. Cowan can resign or retire with a 30-day notice.

* The contract becomes effective Jan. 15.

Cowan has been working as Rowan County Manager since September 2005. First he was hired as an interim. A few months later, the county hired him as a company of one, William K. Cowan Inc., as the full-time manager. That allowed him to continue receiving retirement benefits.

Commissioners and Cowan agreed that he will become an employee of the county, dropping the company contract.