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Essex Co. cuts from 4 coroners down to 2

Essex County may soon have two fewer coroner positions.

The county Board of Supervisors on Monday voted unanimously to decrease the number of elected county coroner positions from four to two. The change — which could be subject to public referendum if a petition is filed demanding one — follows years of discussion surrounding reforms to the county’s coroner system.

A public hearing on the proposed change, a few minutes before the supervisors’ vote, drew no comments.

The county is awaiting guidance from the state Board of Elections on the deadline for independent petitions to see if the law can take effect this year or next year, according to county attorney Dan Manning.

“Our intent is for this to take effect this year,” he said. “We’re hopeful, but it may not.”

When the law takes effect, two coroner positions would be up for election. Anyone who wants to run for the office would be required to be a permanent resident of Essex County. The current coroners’ terms would expire on Dec. 31. After that, the newly elected coroners would be sworn in at the start of the new year and serve terms of four years, according to the board’s resolution.

“We think it’s more efficient,” board Chairman Shaun Gillilland, R-Willsboro, said of the decision to eliminate two coroner positions. “We’ve had these four positions for the longest time, and for the longest time we’ve had some coroners spend the majority of the year out of state, or had some who didn’t answer calls.”

Coroner Walter Marvin III, who has since resigned from his post, lived out of state part-time while serving. Other coroners, including Kellie Valentine and Paul Connery of Ticonderoga, were accused of being frequently unavailable or missing calls, necessitating a different coroner to respond. Coroner Frank Whitelaw of Bloomingdale resigned earlier this year, citing a broken system and alleged efforts by county officials to force him out because he spoke up about a lack of accountability. The only coroners left are Valentine and Jay Heald of Elizabethtown, who was elected to fill Connery’s seat.

“If you look at this over the long term, you’ll see two coroners always seem to be busy and two don’t,” Gillilland said. “Based on the needs of the county, the number of deaths and past history, two (coroners) makes sense.”

Gillilland added that with just two coroners left, “The beta test has already been completed.

“We’ve been operating successfully with two.”

Some counties, such as neighboring Clinton County, have only one coroner, with others available to pinch-hit if needed. Others, such as neighboring Franklin County, continue to have four.

Essex County supervisors adopted a slate of new reforms to their coroner system last summer. The law, which went into effect at the start of this year, imposed new regulations and ethical standards for coroners. It also put in place a new dispatch protocol, and it changed how human remains are transported and who has the authority to order autopsies.

Whitelaw — whose comments on his “lazy” fellow coroners, first reported by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in 2018, sparked a renewed focus on the issue — panned many of the changes. He said they made the system more costly to taxpayers by increasing the reimbursement rate per body removal, and potentially more traumatic for those who lose loved ones by shifting the responsibility of body transport from coroners to licensed funeral home directors, potentially extending the amount of time a body remains in a home.

Supervisors said the changes were made in an effort to streamline the system.

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