They won; I’ve resigned as coroner
It’s very disheartening when you put your heart, soul and effort into a job you care so much about, only to have the very people you work for do everything they can to sabotage you. That’s why I have resigned as Essex County coroner.
I made the mistake of expecting the county administration to care about the job, too. To recap: When I was virtually covering the whole county by myself for two years and asking the administrators for help to correct the problem, I was blown off. I got to the point of being ready to quit and shared that with Peter Crowley during an informal conversation. I allowed my story to go public, and the county was essentially “pantsed” in the school yard. They deserved it. They were dragged, kicking and screaming like a brat in a toy store, into adopting rules and regulations to make all of the coroners accountable and responsive.
They took great exception that in one of those years, I made nearly $30,000 over and above my $4,500 salary for body removals, body bag fees and mileage. Even though I was the only one doing the work, I was shamed for making the extra allowable fees.
I fought them hard for wanting to relegate body removals to funeral homes for coroner cases. I argued that the coroners should be paid $150 per removal, as opposed to the $300 they were being paid. I proposed the county buy body bags in bulk to save the reimbursement fee of $75 per bag. I proposed they pay only standard mileage when traveling with a body instead of the $2 per mile they have been paying. Instead, the county admin chose to contract with funeral homes and pay them $500 per removal at a rate of $1.50 per mile. My plan cut fees and saved YOU, the taxpayer, money. Compare it: You pay $150 per removal under my plan … or more than $500 under the county’s plan.
I am trained and authorized as a medico-legal death investigator to draw toxicology specimens from a body by needle and syringe. I did this under the authorization of pathologists. No incisions are made. Most coroners don’t do this because they’re not trained and don’t want to. I did it when necessary. The county lost their minds when I told them I did this, and they made a new rule that prohibits it. They get scared by things they’re not familiar with.
Now, they have decided to assign geographic zones for each coroner. At the last Board of Supervisors meeting, they decided that I would cover ONLY three townships. Jay Heald of Elizabethtown has been given nine townships, in addition to being one of the contracted funeral homes that makes the extra $500 per removal and the $1.50-per-mile mileage. Kellie Valentine gets six townships. Marvin, the golf caddy, is assigned as a floater.
They “claim” it’s based on “closest car.” Schroon is closer to Heald than Valentine? No. For the last seven years, I have covered North Elba, St. Armand, Wilmington, Jay, Keene and Newcomb. Nobody ever had to wait long for me to arrive. Then they pushed me into a tiny little corner of the county while another coroner, who owns a funeral home in the area and has a removal contract with the county, gets assigned two of my former coverage areas. I’m sure everything is above board because remember, we’re dealing with politicians of the highest integrity. They would NEVER show favoritism to any specific coroner, right?
Your county is incensed that I had the audacity to call them out for leaving me to drown for two years, yet they still turn a blind eye to a coroner whom they still pay, who is working out of state as a professional golf caddy. No favoritism there.
Let’s recap my coroner career from December 2012:
¯ Investigated 299 deaths with several high profile cases.
¯ Worked WITH the media for public awareness and safety (Flume deaths, snowmobile deaths, overdose, etc.).
¯ Provided anti-drug presentations to schools at no charge (not even mileage). This was done on my own time and at my expense.
¯ Attended numerous training schools and became certified as a medico-legal death investigator by three different training bodies at no expense to you. I paid for it.
¯ Purchased a specialized vehicle and removal equipment, PPE and other equipment at no cost to you. Again … I paid for all of it.
¯ Procured laptop computers with case management software for all four coroners on a grant from the New York State Association of Counties.
¯ Procured PPE for the other three coroners and donated PPE from my own personal supply for the other three coroners during the COVID pandemic.
Here’s what the county admin wants: They want someone who is compliant and doesn’t make waves. They also want board members who go along to get along. Whistleblowers always lose, in the end. I’m OK with that. This is a job that I loved, and I loved serving you. The board is extremely relieved that they finally got me to leave. They’ll most likely say the politician things. You know how politicians talk. It’s a language all unto its own.
In stark contrast, I am still working as an independent contractor for Clinton County as a medico-legal death investigator when their lone coroner is unavailable. Essex County also tried to get that squashed and failed. Clinton County is AWESOME! They have been great to me, and they actually understand the role of the coroner. They support the coroner. They even supply equipment and training.
Essex County admin has been on a mission to get rid of me since they were called out and forced to take action with the coroners. Mission accomplished, and I’m great with it. At least I can look in the mirror and be proud of what I have done for the job and for the people I have served.
Some good things came from the dust-up. The county was forced to make coroners accountable and responsive. I also formed a great professional friendship with one of the coroners whom I was very critical of. To go on record and correct something I said about this coroner being lazy, I have to say Kellie Valentine is anything but lazy. If anything, she is overextended. She is a very hard-working woman. She works multiple jobs, and is a very dedicated and involved mother. I was wrong to lump her into the lazy category, and I want to publicly go on record to apologize and correct that. As for the other ones … my comments stand. Kellie Valentine and I had a meeting of the minds after the dust-up in 2018, and we’re all good.
Thank you all for letting me serve you and your loved ones. It was my honor to serve with integrity and compassion. Next chapter …
Frank Whitelaw lives in Bloomingdale.