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Rock County residents to vote for coroner

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Ted Sullivan
March 27, 2009
— In 50 years, Ronnie Thomas has never missed a chance to vote.

So the Janesville resident spoke up when he heard his right to vote for the coroner might be taken away.


“When you vote for an office and have been able to vote for an office since we became a state, it seems like you’re railroading my rights right out the door,” he told the Rock County Board on Thursday night.


He and other passionate voters got their way after the board voted 16-12 in favor of keeping the elected coroner’s office instead of appointing a medical examiner.


Rock County residents will vote for coroner in the November 2010 election.


“I think the people of Rock County know what they’re doing when they vote,” board member Marv Wopat said.


Board members in 2005 voted to change the position in 2011 from an elected coroner to an appointed medical examiner after problems in the office. Proponents said the county could better oversee a medical examiner.


Former Coroner Karen Gilbertson was arrested for stealing prescription drugs from death scenes. She later pleaded guilty to misconduct in public office and died while serving her sentence.


Board members in favor of an elected coroner said they trusted voters to elect a competent and qualified coroner. They said the previous problem was the coroner and not the office. They added the office has since restored its professionalism.


“Let’s not throw out the entire bushel because of one bad apple,” board member Brian Knudson said.


Another argument for electing a coroner was that the coroner works for the public to investigate crimes, board member James Joiner said.


It would be a conflict of interest if an appointed medical examiner had to investigate county officials, he said.


Board members in favor of appointing a medical examiner said it gives them power to control the medical examiner in case of misconduct. They added that appointing a medical examiner ensures a qualified candidate would be hired.


“Neither system is without flaws, and neither one is perfect,” board member Louis Peer said. “The key is to be able to have the ability to fill this position with the person who is most qualified.”


The desire to switch between a medical examiner and coroner was the result of political parties trying to control the office, board member Phillip Owens said.


An elected coroner leaves the position open for political football, he said.


“We cannot be held hostage by a political party,” Owens said.


The current coroner, Jenifer Keach, was appointed in 2005 and elected in 2006.


She sat in the gallery listening to the debate about her job, but board members agreed she has been a good coroner.


“I think it’s a system that serves us well,” Keach said after the meeting. “I think elected officials are as trustworthy as appointed officials.”



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