Our Views: Rock County heading down right path to medical examiner

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

“The office of coroner has no accountability to anybody in Rock County other than the voters. … The office seems to be in the limelight for the wrong reasons more often than not, but we as county officials cannot go there and discipline anyone in that office.”

—Rock County Board Chairman Russ Podzilni, 2010

Three things appear certain as Rock County changes how it handles death investigations.

First, the county will switch in 2015 from an elected coroner to a paid medical examiner.

Second, death investigations will cost more.

Third, services to families will improve.

Chaos often has plagued the coroner’s office. In 2005, the coroner was arrested for stealing prescription drugs from death scenes. Her replacement, appointed by then-Gov. Jim Doyle, walked into an office in disarray and walked out eight days later. Doyle’s next choice, Jenifer Keach, wrote policies and procedures that improved operations. While she showed compassion to most families, she could be abrasive with co-workers, others in county government, outside agencies and pathologists. Voters, however, elected her to consecutive four-year terms. Only the governor can discipline or remove an elected coroner.

Keach resigned for a new job late last year, and Lou Smit leads the office.

The change to a medical examiner has been too long in coming. The county board voted in 2005 to make the switch in 2011 but reversed itself in 2009. Residents approved the move in a 2010 advisory referendum. Voters re-elected Keach that same November, delaying the switch until now.

County officials earn credit for thoroughly studying medical examiner options. The best, though most expensive, appears to be contracting with Dane County’s medical examiner to manage and serve Rock County with a small staff here. At a county board committee meeting Monday, Smit suggested that if the goal of switching to a medical examiner was to have more control, contracting with Dane County would cede that control.

Perhaps to a point. If the agreement doesn’t work out, Rock County could still change to standalone operations without waiting years.

Besides, county officials have been soliciting feedback from stakeholders. County supervisors should consider the words of Jerry Lynch of Whitcomb-Lynch Funeral Home and Cremation Services in Janesville. At Monday’s meeting, Lynch strongly urged officials to work with Dane County. His funeral home has dealt with the Rock County Coroner’s Office and the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“The difference is night and day,” he said.

Yes, costs will be higher. The coroner’s office budget is $458,061 this year. Estimated annual costs of the county hiring its own medical examiner and staff are $573,676. Contracting with Dane County would cost an estimated $597,789 annually.

The cost increase is significant either way. Using either option, however, Rock County expects to serve families better by having the same staffer who responds to a death scene follow that case through closure. It also plans to pay Dane County’s forensic pathologist to perform more autopsies. Rock County currently has autopsies performed in 11 percent of deaths, compared to 21 percent in Dane County. With more autopsies, Rock County might find criminal causes to deaths that today could slip by.

Death is traumatic for a family. Whether Rock County switches to a standalone medical examiner and staff or contracts with Dane County’s medical examiner, the goal must be the same: to offer loved ones and other stakeholders respect, dignity and the best investigative services possible.

Given its thorough exploration of options, we’re confident Rock County will make the right choice.

Gazette editorials express the views of the newspaper’s editorial board. Readers are encouraged to comment on editorials through letters to the editor.


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