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Commissioners decide to stick with current county manager

By Jessie Burchette

Salisbury Post

An attempt to terminate the contract of the county manager will apparently result in Bill Cowan getting a new long-term contract.

On a 3-2 vote, commissioners agreed to forego a nationwide search for a new manager and keep the man who has been on the job for 15 months.

Chairman Arnold Chamberlain, Vice Chairman Chad Mitchell and Commissioner Tina Hall voted to give Cowan a new contract.

Commissioners Jim Sides and Jon Barber, who both praised Cowan, voted against a new contract without conducting an extensive search.

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. Russell had held the job for almost 20 years.

In January, commissioners approved a contract to extend Cowan’s service and give him full authority as manager. However parts of the contract drew fire from Sides, including benefits and the fact that the county was contracting with a company, William Cowan Inc.

Nearly four hours into Monday’s meeting, Sides said the board had previously said it planned to do a search for manager. He said the county needs a full-time employee as manager, not a company.

“It’s not personal. Bill has done an excellent job,” said Sides, making a motion to exercise the 120-day termination clause in Cowan’s contract and begin a full-scale search for manager.

After several moments of silence, Barber added a second to the motion.

“My search ends with Bill Cowan,” Mitchell said. “I have done an interview with Cowan for over a year. He is exemplary. No one questions his ability to manage the county.

Mitchell said the county has to pay market rate for a manager. “If we pay substandard,we’ll get substandard work.”

Cowan currently receives about $151,000 annually. That’s about $20,000 less that the previous manager.

Hall said she initially favored going with an all-out search, but after observing Cowan close up and seeing interaction with county employees, she changed her mind. “We need to keep our manager,” she said.

Barber continued to push for a search, saying the next manager will guide the county for years, past the political whims of various boards.

The motion to give a 120-day notice to end the contract failed on a 3-to-2 vote. Sides and Barber voted for the 120-day notice while Chamberlain, Mitchell and Hall voted against.

Mitchell then offered the motion to negotiate a new contract with Cowan.

Amidst the discussion, Cowan tried several times to speak, but Chamberlain refused to let him.

Eventually, Cowan said he was willing to alter the current contract, requiring only a 30-day notice. He said his lease on a rental house will soon be up and he’ll be renting month-to-month.

As Cowan sounded like he was willing to ship off in a hurry, Sides changed course.

“My intent is not for Bill to leave. I don’t want him to leave,” said Sides, adding that he had hoped they they could do a search beginning in July and Cowan would apply.

Cowan sought to reassure Sides and the board that he didn’t plan a quick exit.

“I don’t intend to leave the board until somebody takes my place. It’s a professional obligation,” Cowan said.

It appears Cowan will be staying long term if contract negotiations are successful.

Commissioners agreed that all members will be involved in negotiating the new contract.

And Cowan agreed that he is willing to become a county employee, dropping the company scenario that allowed him to receive retirement benefits while working.

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