Simplify, focus Essex County coroner rules

We remind Essex County’s leaders that their coroner problem was a personnel issue. The people of the county needed them to ensure all the coroners did the job correctly. That required some new rules, but not as complicated as the ones they come up with.

As we reported last December, some of the county’s four elected coroners were not doing their jobs sufficiently, which meant one particular coroner, Frank Whitelaw of Bloomingdale, had to pick up a lot of slack. He got sick of that and had gotten no satisfaction in reporting it to county officials. When we asked him how the job was going, he told us plainly, on the record, and said he was about ready to quit.

That story hit like a bombshell, and it pressured county officials to start doing something about it. Things got better, but in drafting new coroner rules, county officials also tried to satisfy some people who thought Whitelaw was making too much money transporting bodies to the hospital for autopsies, a job funeral homes can do as well. Now coroners are no longer allowed to transport bodies; only funeral homes can do so.

But in many cases that doesn’t make sense, such as if the funeral home is otherwise occupied with a funeral service and the coroner is readily available and has a properly equipped vehicle.

All but one of the county’s funeral homes declined to sign a county contract for the new system; now the county has issued a new contract it expects more will agree to. One concern is that the county is asking funeral homes to put county transports on their own insurance, for which they pay a lot of money.

Some of the rules, however, are very good, such as requiring coroners to be available by phone, to respond in person to the scene of a death and to keep records of their responses. Although Essex County’s coroners are elected, and therefore cannot be fired easily, the public needs some safeguards to ensure the job is done to a solid standard.

Beyond that, the county can help coroners by paying for more training courses and equipment. While it is good to be careful with taxpayers’ money, Essex County has spent so little on coroners over the decades that a little bit of a boost makes sense — again, to ensure the job is done properly.

There is also a new billing system that seemed even too much for county officials to keep track of. It allowed coroners to seek an extra $200 per case above their $4,529 annual salary after 15 calls per year. But when Whitelaw, who had exceeded that number, put in his request for the extra pay, he was denied, saying the new rules weren’t yet in effect — even through the text of the county law said it took effect Sept. 1.

Now the county has put the whole set of rules on hold indefinitely. We suggest they hone it to focus on the basics of the job, and what works for funeral homes.