Rock County voters will answer coroner question

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Ted Sullivan
Friday, May 28, 2010
— Rock County voters will decide whether they want to continue electing a coroner or have the county appoint a medical examiner.

The Rock County Board on Thursday voted 17-11 to have a referendum on Novemberís ballot.

If voters decide to switch to a medical examiner, the change would not be effective until 2014 because a coroner will be elected to a four-year term in November.

Board members also wouldnít have to follow the referendumís outcome because it will be advisory and not binding.

Coroner Jenifer Keach said afterward that she was thrilled the public would be allowed to make the decision. She said she plans to run for re-election in November.

Board members have debated whether to have a coroner or medical examiner for years.

Former Coroner Karen Gilbertson was arrested for stealing prescription drugs from death scenes in 2005. She later pleaded guilty to misconduct in public office and died while serving her sentence.

Prompted by the Gilbertson case, board members voted in 2005 to change the position in 2011 from an elected coroner to an appointed medical examiner.

Board members voted in March 2009 to return to an elected coroner. They said the previous problem was the coroner and not the office.

Board members considered switching to a medical examinerís office again this year after complaints were filed against Keach, alleging sexual discrimination, a hostile work environment and inappropriate behavior.

In response, Keach said disgruntled former employees are targeting her. She said their allegations are false and politically motivated. People also have said the boardís choice between a coroner or medical examiner is political maneuvering to control the office.

Keach said during public comment Thursday that she has rebuilt the office and has set policies on a par with the nationís best practices. She said some people have embraced the changes, while others have not. She said the office is serving the county better than ever.

No one wants a medical examiner system, including voters, funeral homes, coronerís office employees and others, Keach said.

Other counties that have switched to a medical examiner system also have had an increase in costs, Keach said. Taxes have increased, buildings have been built and one countyís highest paid employee is the medical examiner.

People in favor of a coroner said they wanted to keep their right to vote. They said people who wanted a medical examiner were politically motivated.

They said a medical examiner system would be more expensive and had too many fiscal unknowns. They also said a coroner is an independent investigator free from outside pressure to rule causes of death a certain way.

People who spoke in favor of a medical examiner said anyone could be elected coroner without any qualifications. They said the county could have more oversight over a medical examiner. They said having a medical examiner guarantees the hiring of a professional.

Board members also spoke in favor of both systems.

Raucous applause broke out after the board voted in favor of a referendum.

Last updated: 1:44 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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