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Essex County OKs coroner rules

Law sets accountability, standardization that had been lacking

The county Board of Supervisors adopted a new law Monday governing how coroners operate in Essex County.

The law imposes new regulations and ethical standards for the county’s four coroners. It also puts in place a new dispatch protocol, and it changes how human remains will be transported and who has the authority to order autopsies.

The law’s passing comes after three public hearings, more than a decade of conversation among lawmakers in Essex County and multiple Enterprise articles highlighting faults in the system.

“I think we have a good product,” county Board of Supervisors Chairman Shaun Gillilland said of the law. “This is going to standardize the coroner’s service throughout the county so all the coroners are operating according to state law and according to uniform standards.”

It was adopted without any no votes, according to the county attorney’s office. St. Armand town Supervisor Davina Winemiller abstained. With the passing of Randy Preston last month, the seat for Wilmington town supervisor is vacant, and Minerva town Supervisor Stephen McNally was absent.

The new law takes effect Sept. 1.

Changes to transport, autopsies

Though lawmakers have discussed changes to the county’s coroner system as far back as 2008, the legislative wheels started turning following an Enterprise article published in December 2018 called “Essex County coroner fed up with ‘lazy’ colleagues.”

In it, coroner Frank Whitelaw of Bloomingdale said he was ready to turn in his resignation letter in part because the three other 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 disputed his claims.

After that article was published, the county attorney and county Board of Supervisors began researching legislation to rectify issues in the coroner system. The original version of the new law was introduced in February.

Coroner is an elected position with an annual base salary of $4,400 in Essex County. Coroners are tasked with responding to unattended deaths. When a person finds someone dead, or a person is fatally injured in public, coroners respond to declare the manner of death. They also manage the paperwork and were tasked with transporting the remains to a hospital, if necessary. The latter is going to change as a result of the new law.

When the law takes effect, a centralized dispatch system will be put in place to curb favoritism toward any single coroner and notify the nearest coroners and funeral homes at the same time an unattended death call comes in. If a coroner isn’t a licensed medical physician, he or she won’t be able to authorize an autopsy without a physician’s sign-off. The responsibility of transporting human remains will shift to licensed funeral homes.

These changes were the more controversial measures proposed in the law. In the last public hearing on July 29, two coroners — Whitelaw and his wife Donna, who is a retired St. Lawrence County coroner — submitted statements urging the county to continue letting coroners transport remains. Saranac Lake police Chief Charles Potthast and Lake Placid police Chief William Moore said the same.

Donna Whitelaw said most coroners possess the proper equipment, training and knowledge of any legalities or health issues to effectively transport remains. She said coroners often have to wait long periods of time at the scene for a body to be released before they can be transported, something she feels funeral home directors wouldn’t want to do, further delaying the process.

Moore said there have been times when police officers have had to wait over three hours for a funeral home to arrive for removal.

“I still disagree with them taking away the authority for coroners to do removals on coroners’ investigations,” Frank Whitelaw said Wednesday. “I see problems with it, but I hope I’m wrong.”

Gillilland said the law will standardize the procedure, regardless of where the death occurs. He said centralizing dispatch of coroners and funeral homes will make the system better.

“Dispatch will call whatever funeral home is available to transport so we can avoid any accusations that any one funeral home is being used to financial advantage,” he said.

“We want a standard, uniform procedure instead of some coroners using funeral homes and others transporting on their own. The Board of Supervisors could’ve had a choice: Contract with funeral homes, or outfit each coroner with a fully outfitted vehicle and equipment. This is more to the taxpayer’s advantage, to contract with funeral homes.”

Other changes

Under the new law, coroners will also be required to document all calls they respond to and to physically arrive on the scene. They will be required to provide notice when they’re unavailable. In the past, some coroners have not kept records, followed up by phone instead of in person, spent winters in Florida and not always been reachable by phone.

“The new law does go a long way to bring accountability to the coroner’s office, which is a huge step forward,” Whitelaw said.

Although a “101” class is already required for every coroner, the law will let the county pay for coroners to get additional training on topics such as blood-borne pathogens, mass fatalities and synthetic opioid drugs.

The original draft floated changes to existing fees and stipends for body bags and transportation, but those are gone in the adopted version.

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 or her vehicle. A previous draft would’ve dropped that to $100, but the current version doesn’t specify a rate.

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

Now that the baseline is there, more changes may be on the horizon.

“This was the first step,” Gillilland said. “The next thing we’ll bring up is the standard operating procedures and regulations. The county attorney is working on that. We’ll be taking a close look at what is the right number of coroners in the county. That’s our next step.”

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