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Most Rock County Coroner's Office employees not hired for new office

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Frank Schultz
Saturday, January 3, 2015

JANESVILLE--Most of the Rock County deputy coroners who have responded to death scenes in recent years won't be around as the county's new medical examiner system takes over Monday.

Only two part-time deputy coroners now on staff have been hired, county officials said.

The new positions will be called medical/legal investigators, but they will do similar work, responding to death scenes and gathering information to help determine causes of death, said Randy Terronez, assistant to the county administrator.

The rest of the 17 full- and part-time coroner's office employees lost their jobs, including Chief Deputy Lou Smit, who has run the office since Jenifer Keach, the former coroner, resigned in November 2013.

Smit said he and Don Robinson were the only full-timers on staff, although a third full-time position had gone vacant for more than a year.

Two part-timers had been working mostly full-time hours to pick up the slack, Smit said Friday.

“It's pretty short-sighted, in my view,” Smit said of the lack of local hires. “You have lots of experience here and lots of relationships with law enforcement.”

Smit said people might get the impression that the coroner's office staff was not qualified, which he called “disheartening.”

Rock County Administrator Josh Smith, who helped interview candidates for the three full-time jobs and a handful of part-time positions, said that's not what people should think.

“We just had a very large and qualified candidate pool, and we're just trying to find the most qualified people, going forward, for the office,” Smith said.

“We certainly owe our current staff a great deal for all the work they've done for us over time, and certainly our current staff have done a good job,” Smith said. “I don't want there to be any impression that they haven't done a good job for the county.”

Asked about losing experience, Smith said: “I don't know that was at the top of our list. We mostly wanted people who we felt were most qualified and would be a good fit for the office.”

Smith noted that Barry Irmen, who lives in Edgerton and has a history of work in local law enforcement, will manage the Rock County Medical Examiner's Office.

“We feel pretty comfortable with that, going forward,” Smith said.

Irmen manages the Dane County Medical Examiner's Office and will continue to do so.

Irmen will spend some of his work hours in Rock County, Terronez said.

The county board voted in January 2011 to go to a medical examiner system. It's  something many state counties have done or are considering. Rock County voters had backed the move in an advisory referendum.

The board voted last summer to contract with Dane County for the service.

Smith said three coroner's office employees were interviewed, and two were selected for part-time positions.

More than 100 people applied for the jobs, and each took a skills test in addition to completing application materials, Smith said.

Two full-timers have been hired, and a person tentatively selected for the third full-time position is going through a background check, Smith said.

Those hired are Rhea Ellestad, who formerly worked part-time for the Dane County office, and Wes Mathieu, who had worked for the Winnebago County (Illinois) Coroner's Office, Smith said.

Smit sent out a news release last week noting the end of 132 years for the coroner's office. He thanked law enforcement, fire/EMS staff, funeral home workers and the community for their support.

Smit noted the coroner's office's outreach programs, which gave out more than 3,000 stuffed animals as part of its “Remember Me” program and recorded more than 50 lives saved in suicide-prevention efforts.

“I can complain, and that's fine and dandy, but I think that's more important,” Smit said of the office's accomplishments.

The county is continuing the suicide-prevention outreach with Tony Farrell, a volunteer deputy coroner who will continue to work without compensation but through the county health department, officials have said.

“We wish the incoming Rock County Medical Examiner's Department the very best of luck in the future,” Smit wrote.



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