Essex County must fix coroner problem

Some decisions should be easy. The Essex County Board of Supervisors has one of those, regarding some coroners who refuse to do the job they are paid for, and which voters elected them to do.

But taking advantage of the taxpayers is the smallest consequence of their laziness; they also disrespect the dead, the families thereof, the emergency workers who repeatedly try to contact them and the coroner who gets stuck doing the job for them.

The county supes and administrators have passed on dealing with this situation for the last couple of years. If they had been on the ball, they would have dealt with it before this fall’s election, when two of the three slacking coroners were re-elected with no opposition. If voters and potential candidates had known what was going on, that election could have provided the correction that’s needed.

We didn’t know, either, until a week before Election Day when Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw stopped by the Enterprise office to tell us about a fatal hunting accident. After he did so, we casually asked him how work as a coroner was going, knowing how much he loves the job.

His response shocked us: He said he had his resignation letter all typed and was almost ready to quit.

Asked why, he told us the core of the story we published in Saturday’s paper, about how the county’s other three coroners do not respond to calls. The best of them, Kellie Valentine of Moriah, rarely picks up her phone or calls back. Paul Connery of Ticonderoga disconnected his phone and stopped taking calls since getting a driving-while-intoxicated charge; he didn’t stand for re-election. Walter “Smitty” Marvin III of Elizabethtown, who did have the gall to run for re-election, lives in Florida for much of the year, and the phone number listed for him in the county directory is for a funeral home he sold and no longer works for.

We suspect they are more accessible when it comes to collecting their paychecks.

That leaves Whitelaw to cover almost all unattended deaths, traveling all over Essex County at his own expense. He said he brought the matter up to the Board of Supervisors two years ago, but they hadn’t done anything.

We knew we couldn’t publish this story before the election, and even if we could have, it would have been too late for new candidates to run. Reporting such an allegation takes time and caution to corroborate and try to get other sides of the story.

It was telling that we, too, were unable to get in touch with Connery, Marvin or Valentine, even after publishing this incendiary story.

By contrast, it was easy to connect with newly elected coroner Jay Heald of Elizabethtown. We wish him well and expect he will be responsible.

Marvin and Valentine, on the other hand, require disciplinary action before they start new terms.

Whitelaw had opted not to focus on his colleagues’ negligence in fall 2017 when we did an in-depth story on how counties wash their hands of coroners and make them take care of their own training, equipment and vehicles. Maybe at the time he hoped our report would jolt county leaders into action. It didn’t.

Now, our reporting has more bluntly put the coroner issue right in front of supervisors’ noses. We hope they do something about it.

In the past, they have used the excuse that they cannot meddle in the affairs of elected officials, but that’s not true. New York state County Law Article 17-A, Section 671, Subsection 2 says, “The coroner shall perform such additional and related duties as may be prescribed by law and directed by the board of supervisors.” That seems to say clearly that supervisors have authority to make coroners do not only the basics of their job — like showing up to work — but even other tasks as well.

In Franklin County, all four coroners do show up for calls, but all counties should learn from Essex County’s example that when you don’t care about a public service, so-called public servants can take advantage of that and collect money for nothing.

Counties don’t think much about coroner services and have been extremely frugal with them in the past. Our fall 2017 article led with the tale of Ron Keough as a newly elected Franklin County coroner at the age of 23, walking into the courthouse in Malone on New Year’s Day 1960 and asking for his coroner “stuff.”

“And there was no stuff,” Keough said. “There was no protocol. No guidelines. No forms. Nothing. They told me, ‘You’re on your own. Don’t spend any money. Don’t make any waves. Don’t get us sued.’ That was it.”

That’s still it, almost 59 years later.

“There’s no manual,” Whitelaw, who became a coroner in 2013, said for that article, “no policies or procedures, standards or practices. No training. You’re told up front you’re offered no training and will be given no equipment. That’s all on you.”

This past February, for the first time in New York history, a state law went into effect requiring coroners to take a basic training course. It’s not the higher-level training coroners like Whitelaw have paid to take, but it’s something. Yet the state refuses to pay for this course, which runs about $600, and some counties do, too, leaving one more bill for the coroners themselves. In general, most counties see coroner services as another unfunded state mandate.

This, plus the opioid drug epidemic that has resulted in many more unattended deaths due to overdoses, has made coroners more of a public issue. Just this fall, the New York State Association of Counties asked the state to pay part of the cost for coroners.

Yes, the state should pay, but counties need to step up in the meantime. They have been cheap on respecting the dead for decades.

Meanwhile, we see a liability here. Someone could sue if, hypothetically, a poorly trained coroner botches a job, or if a family does not want their loved one’s cause of death made public.

The latter almost happened last year when Olympic hero Steve Holcomb’s family threatened to sue Essex County if it didn’t suppress Whitelaw’s report on the gold-medalist bobsledder’s death at Lake Placid’s Olympic Training Center. Thankfully for the county, a compromise was reached, letting the U.S. bobsled federation release the news that Holcomb had died from a mix of alcohol and a prescription sleep aid. But by then county leaders had already agreed to suppress the report, validating that they are, ultimately, responsible for coroner services.

They seemed to forget that as soon as the lawsuit threat was gone. But deep down, we think they know they have to deal with it. The board’s chairman, Randy Preston of Wilmington, called the lazy coroners’ behavior “criminal.”

Now is the time for supervisors to step up and make sure this important job is done properly — for the sake of the dead and their loved ones, as well as for first responders and those coroners who are responsible.

If they don’t, they will lose Whitelaw and any other decent coroner who won’t stand to be abused.

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