Reporting on coroners was shoddy

It was disheartening to read the Adirondack Daily Enterprise’s article about the concerns of Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw for many reasons, the primary one being the paper’s choice to publish without doing the due diligence of contacting the other coroners before publishing a story that could have been thoroughly researched and evenly presented. Let’s face it: This is not a time-sensitive breaking news story of national importance.

I have been a funeral director for 30 years and a coroner for 24 years, and every newspaper, New York state trooper and county official seems to know how to get in touch with me. As a matter of fact, I was on the phone discussing a coroner’s call with a trooper when I was notified of this article. Further, to use hearsay and conjecture to label the other three coroners (who have, combined, 70-plus years’ experience in this field without any previous problems of note) as lazy individuals not doing our jobs and to drag another’s legal issues out into the public based on one person’s opinions is just shoddy, petty journalism.

Four elected part-time coroners are paid $4,400 annually to be on call 24/7 with a per-diem rate when we go to a call at all hours of the day, in every kind of weather and to some very challenging locations across a large county with our own vehicle and equipment. It won’t surprise you to know that most coroners can’t live on this income without another job. For decades, the coroners have worked as a team to cover each other when a job, family matter, illness or vacation has made it impossible for one to respond. Most years, some coroners take more calls than others — there were many years when I was that coroner and I can understand some frustration at times.

I am a New York state resident who spends the winters in Florida. I spend over half the year in Elizabethtown. I answer calls professionally and am available by phone all year. Calls to coroners usually go out based on location. This year I was contacted 15 times and was able to handle 12 of those cases. I continue this work because my heart is still in this job. I continue my education in this field through up-to-date training and am a current member of the New York State County Coroners and Medical Examiners Association. I enjoy my relationships with the local and state police, the county officials and my fellow coroners. My priority on each case is to determine cause of death and direct the next steps in a way that will make law enforcement’s job most efficient and accurate, and keep costs to Essex County residents as low as possible.

It’s wonderful that Mr. Whitelaw has a retirement benefit that allows him to devote so much time to this position, and his enthusiasm is to be commended. I am sure matters will improve in January, when we have four active coroners in place again.

Maybe further research by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise could look into which coroner causes the most costs to Essex County (and, coincidentally, the most income for themselves) by insisting that cases that could be immediately determined unnecessary for an autopsy and sent directly to a funeral home are transported to a distant hospital before it is determined that there is no need for an autopsy. I think that kind of reporting might help solve a problem rather than exacerbate one.

With that being said, I will continue to do this job ethically as long as the voters of Essex County say that I can.

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