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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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By 23-6 Vote Supervisors Retain Coroner Position

Deaths in Marinette County will continue to be investigated by an elected County Coroner rather than an appointed medical examiner for at least the next four years. That decision came near the end of a long and contentious County Board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 28, when a motion to replace Marinette County’s elected county coroner position with an appointed medical examiner was defeated by a decisive 23 to six vote margin.

Supervisors voting in favor of the medical examiner were County Board Vice Chair Kathy Just, County Board Chair Vilas Schroeder, Melissa Christiansen, Gilbert Engel, Ken Keller, and Cheryl Wruk. Joe Banaszak was absent.

Supervisors who favored staying with the elected coroner were C. J. Barrette, Russ Bauer, Alice Baumgarten, Mike Behnke, Russ Bousley, Ken Casper, Mike Cassidy, Paul Gustafson, Robert Holley, Shirley Kaufman, Nick Lakari, Tom Mailand, Al Mans, Ken Mattison, Larry Nichols, Don Pazynski, Joe Policello, Al Sauld, Ted Sauve, Connie Seefeldt, Mel Sharpe, Bill Walker and Clancy Whiting.

Had the resolution passed, effective Jan. 1, 2015, the Marinette County Coroner’s position would have been filled by a Medical Examiner selected by County Administrator Ellen Sorensen and confirmed by the County Board.

Purpose of the coroner, as explained on the Marinette County website, “is to investigate all deaths which are considered suicidal, accidental, homicidal, unexplained, unusual, suspicious, sudden, deaths where a physician is not available or will not sign a death certificate, and in deaths where cremation is to be the final disposition of the corpse. Disinterment of a corpse for any reason also is a responsibility of the Coroner’s office. All death certificates issued in Marinette County are screened by the Coroner for compliance with final disposition and proper execution of the death certificate.”

Major arguments in favor of keeping the coroner’s position elected centered on retaining the rights of voters and insuring that the coroner is a county resident.

The current four year term of long-time Coroner George Smith ends in January of 2015. Candidates for the next term, to be filled at the November elections this fall, can begin circulating nomination papers on April 15, and a decision was needed before that date. Smith has indicated he will probably seek another term. Smith is in his 28th year as coroner and before that had served 11 years as a deputy coroner.

Smith did not speak at the board meeting, but had previously stated the coroner should remain an elected position. “I don’t think the coroner should answer to the county administrator,” he declared. “The coroner should remain an independent elected office answerable only to the voters. He said the coroner’s office is the only elected position in the state that a County Board can eliminate by a simple majority vote.

He also pointed out that elected coroners do exactly the same thing medical examiners do.

There is currently no law in Wisconsin requiring that coroners or medical examiners have any particular medical training, and most do not. Of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, none have coroners who are physicians. Over half the counties - 37 - have exactly the system Marinette County has - elected coroners who are not required to be certified by the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI). Another six have medical examiners who also are not required to be certified. Smith explained that he does attend training seminars and said he and other coroners and medical examiners require themselves and their staff members to get education and certification, but it is not universal.

The resolution attempting to terminate the elected coroner post in favor of an appointed medical examiner had come in for long discussion at an Executive Committee meeting on Thursday, Jan. 16 and eventually was forwarded to the full board without a recommendation for or against. Discussion was that the County Board as a whole should decide before the deadline for circulating nomination papers arrived.

For that meeting, County Administrator Ellen Sorensen had prepared comparisons of the existing coroner’s budget and prospective costs under a medical examiner system, along with a brief list of pros and cons for each system. Her estimates that cost of the two systems would be essentially the same were questioned by Smith, who predicted they would be substantially higher. Smith had prepared a list of pros and cons for the June 13 Executive Committee meeting when the possibility of switching to an appointed Medical Examiner was considered and rejected, and Sorensen had prepared another list for the January meeting.

Current annual salary of the part-time coroner is $30,504 plus fringe benefits for a part time position. That may or may not be adjusted next month when County Board sets salaries for elected positions to be filled at the November elections. Total budget for the Coroner’s office is $112,439. Besides salaries this includes $26,250 for physician’s fees, $12,000 for hospital expenses and $10,000 for travel expenses.

At Tuesday’s County Board meeting Just made the motion to switch from coroner to medical examiner, and received a second from Keller. “I think it’s important we have this discussion and get it settled,” she declared, adding that the decision should be based on the position, not the person who holds the position.

Just said switching to the appointed medical examiner would give County Board the opportunity to standardize some requirements, regionalize the office, and reduce county liability.

“The coroner has at his fingertips the state pathology lab, state medical labs and investigators, and state sponsored seminars,” declared Supervisor Mattison, adding there are more training sessions and services now than there were during the 14 years he served as coroner. He was strongly in favor of retaining the elected office of coroner.

“This has been kicked around for at least eight years,” declared Keller, who chairs the Law Enforcement Committee. He had some handouts including one which explained a proposed law that he predicted will by 2018 require coroners and deputy coroners in Wisconsin to be licensed. He noted Oconto County has a Medical Examiner now, and suggested that if all counties had medical examiners they could cross county to hire and assign deputies, which he felt would save money, particularly on murder investigations, and give better response times. He pointed out Wisconsin is one of only five states that requires no medical training for coroners or medical examiners, and felt the medical examiner would be a step forward.

Sauve declared himself in favor of keeping the elected coroner’s position, first because the coroner is a county resident, with records kept in the courthouse, secondly because the salary can be determined by the County Board.

“I haven’t heard about any problems with the current coroner,” Sauve declared, adding, “Our judges are highly complimentary to the work of our coroner.” He did not favor the idea of regionalization, and felt the time involved in getting someone from another county could hamper investigations and pose hardships for families involved when a death is investigated.

Casper also argued in favor of staying with the coroner and retaining the right of voters to choose. “If the Medical Examiner did not work out, it would be awfully hard to restore the elected position,” Casper declared.

Baumgarten wanted to know why the proposal had surfaced again. She said it had been voted down when it came to the Executive Committee in June of 2013, “and here it is again. It keeps coming back! Apparently it will keep coming back until we vote to go that way!”

Pazynski asked how the medical examiner is chosen. Sorensen started to explain it depends on how the post is organized, but Corporation Counsel Gale Mattison said under state statutes the Medical Examiner is appointed by the County Administrator, with confirmation by the County Board.

“Don’t take another right from the voters,” declared Holley. “We’re a Republic, and we elect our officials!”

Nichols said he had been contacted by a funeral director, who asked him to support keeping the elected position of coroner. He said much of a coroner’s responsibilities involve providing information and support for families.

Cassidy, who represents the Goodman area, said he had more contacts on the coroner issue than any other since he was seated on County Board. He said most of the voters in his district do not know George Smith personally, “but they want it kept an elected office.”

Gustafson too felt the county should not do away with an elected position.

Behnke declared some of the information Keller had distributed in favor of the medical examiner position was controversial and some was untrue, “it was a handout from a licensed lobbyist!” He said some of the information was biased and distorted.

Schroeder attempted to cut off Behnke’s comments, saying they did not apply to the issue at hand. Behnke moved to postpone indefinitely the vote on the coroner’s position.

Mattison said a motion to postpone is never supposed to be used to cut off discussion on something people want to vote on. She and Schroeder prevented the motion from being considered.

Mans moved to cut off discussion. Motion was read, and it was explained a “yes” would mean they would go with a medical examiner, and a “no” would defeat it. Without further discussion the proposal then went down to defeat by the 23 to six vote margin.


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