Public hearing set on Essex County coroner regulations

ELIZABETHTOWN — A new version of a proposed law governing how coroners operate in Essex County is headed for a public hearing later this month.

This latest version of the law mirrors the original regulations proposed in February, barring a few minor changes.

If the law passes, a number of new regulations and ethical standards would take effect. Coroners would be required to document all calls they respond to. They would be required to physically arrive on the scene. A centralized dispatch system would be put in place to both curb favoritism toward any single coroner and to notify the nearest coroners and funeral homes at the same time when a call comes in. Coroners would be required to provide notice when they’re unavailable. If a coroner isn’t a licensed medical physician, they would be required to authorize an autopsy without a physician’s sign-off, and the responsibility of transporting human remains would shift to licensed funeral homes. Although a 101 class is already required for every coroner, the law would allow coroners to get additional training on topics such as blood-borne pathogens, mass fatalities and synthetic opioids at the county’s expense.

The original draft also floated changes to existing fees and stipends for body bags and transportation, but those are gone in the current version of the proposed law.

Currently, coroners receive a $300 call and removal fee if a funeral home can’t remove a body and the coroner has to transport it using his/her vehicle. A previous draft would’ve seen that dropped to $100, but the current version being discussed doesn’t specify a rate.

Essex County Attorney Daniel Manning, who drafted the law, said the omission will allow supervisors to alter the fees by resolution, rather than having to call for a public hearing and go through the process of altering the law.

“We can simply amend by resolution how we handle those matters,” he said.

A public hearing on the local law is set for 11 a.m. Monday, July 29 in the board chambers in Elizabethtown.

Coroner disagrees with parts of proposed law

Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw said he “more than strongly disagrees” with a part of the proposal that would transfer the responsibility of transporting remains to funeral homes.

“Coroners have been doing removals since the dawn of time,” he said. “We’ve been doing it properly and with the proper equipment. We treat the families with all due respect and compassion.

“If this stems from one coroner, one incident or two incidents — instead of killing a fly with a sledgehammer, the best thing to do is address the issue with the particular person that made that error.”

Whitelaw also said that requiring coroners to contact physicians prior to authorizing an autopsy could drastically increase the current workload for the county’s contracted coroner’s physicians at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh. Making that change, he said, may either require CVPH to drastically increase its fees or result in the contract being terminated altogether.

“We have always made the decision at the scene whether or not there’s going to be an autopsy,” he said. “They have to have faith in us and trust and allow us to do our jobs.”

Manning said he believes the changes to the transportation regime, and to the process itself, would be for the best.

“Admittedly, there’s tension between the coroners and the funeral directors,” Manning said during a meeting of the Essex County Board of Supervisors on Monday, July 1. “It’s my belief that transportation should be done by registered funeral establishments. That’s how it’s done in Warren County. They’re best equipped for transportation. They’re mandated by law to.

“… Some of our coroners may not be adhering to these standards. Transportation, in my opinion, should best be handled by funeral establishments that are licensed.”

Manning added that there will still be some circumstances where a coroner can still authorize an autopsy.

Long road behind

The proposed reforms to the county’s coroner system follow more than a decade of conversation among lawmakers in Essex County and multiple Enterprise articles highlighting faults in the system.

Last December, the Enterprise published an article called “Essex County coroner fed up with ‘lazy’ colleagues.” Whitelaw told the Enterprise at the time that he was ready to turn in his resignation letter in part because the other three coroners at the time — Paul Connery of Ticonderoga, Walter Marvin III of Elizabethtown and Kellie Valentine of Moriah — were difficult to reach. He said they responded to far fewer calls than he did, even though some of the deaths he responded to were closer to where the others lived. The other coroners later denied his claims and said they were efficient workers.

Whitelaw said he appreciates that his concerns were heard by lawmakers. He intends to attend the public hearing to continue to weigh in on the proposed reforms.

“The idea behind this law should be to set up standards and regulations, but it should not be set up to restrict us,” he said. “Especially when you have coroners that are highly trained and highly skilled, and quite frankly, overqualified.

“If you have coroners that are qualified and legally authorized, they shouldn’t be cut off at the knees. Not every coroner has the same skill set. But if somebody does have a broad skill set, they should be able to work in that skill set.

“I’m not letting this go. I’m passionate about this job and making sure that the board gets this right.”