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An ongoing dispute between Lewis and Clark County Coroner M.E. “Mickey” Nelson and other county officials is intensifying, with Nelson demanding that the county commission provide additional staffing and stop interfering with the operation of his office. 

His Aug. 31, six-page letter to the commission, with a three-page job description, demanded a temporarily assigned assistant within three days in conjunction with efforts to find a permanent replacement.

Nelson also gave the commission five days to begin advertising for the part-time deputy coroner position, which is funded in the county budget for this fiscal year that began July 1.

“My duties as an elected coroner are prescribed by law. You will cease your encroachment upon them,” Nelson wrote.

In a three-page response also dated Aug. 31, the county's Chief Administrative Officer Eric Bryson refused to place staff back in the coroner’s office and said reassigning staff would further increase the county’s liability.

Nelson had said returning staff to his office was needed for him to perform the duties of coroner.

The ongoing dispute between the commission and Nelson dates back more than a year and involves allegations by his staff that Nelson created a hostile work environment. State concerns with Nelson’s management of the office date back to 2011.

In July 2015, the commission removed an administrative assistant from the coroner’s office after she wrote to say Nelson engaged in tirades containing disparaging comments regarding race, sex, politics, religion, mental health and welfare recipients.

A member of the county commission and representative of the county attorney’s office spoke with Nelson shortly after the employee was given a different county job.

The employee did nothing wrong in the administration of her duties, Bryson has noted.

In late May of this year, the county agreed to a state Department of Public Health and Human Services demand to resolve 51 incomplete death certificates dating from 2011 to 2015 with the cause of death listed as pending. 

Death certificates are important for families to settle estates and to collect insurance policies.

Had Nelson not completed the pending death certificates within the 45-day deadline that expired in mid-July, the county could have faced legal action.

Also in July, the administrative assistant and deputy county coroner were removed from Nelson’s office after the administrative assistant wrote the county’s human resources director to request they be moved.

These employees, Bryson said previously, did nothing wrong.

At the request of the county commission, the state removed the duties of registrar from Nelson on Aug. 1 and reassigned them to a member of the Clerk and Recorder’s office staff.

Nelson issued a statement on Aug. 2 to say none of his staff had ever complained or indicated his comments were unwelcome. While acknowledging the “offensive nature” of some comments attributed to him, he also said some were taken out of context. During an interview, he said some of the allegations made by staff were not true.

On Aug. 9, the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and the Montana Human Rights Network called for Nelson’s resignation.

In Nelson’s Aug. 31 letter to the commission, he again noted his regret at comments offending past or present staff and the public.

He also stated “It has become obvious to me that it is the intention of this commission to attempt to force me to retire from my elected office.”

He also said Bryson had asked him not to seek re-election. Nelson, who has 42 years in office, was elected to a four-year term in 2014.

“I was warned by a member of this commission a year ago that ‘things could get ugly’ if I did not retire from my office. Things are now ugly, and the public is poorly served by this specter,” his letter stated.

Nelson said removing his staff has interfered with the duties of his office and said it drove a wedge between him and the support staff that the county is required by law to provide.

“You are setting me up to fall behind in the issuance of death certificates and be subject again to some threatened enforcement action and public ridicule,” Nelson wrote.

Claims that he has fewer duties now that the registrar function has been removed, Nelson wrote, “is a fiction of your making.”

Bryson’s Aug. 31 letter defended the commission’s move to have the registrar’s duties taken from Nelson and said it was both appropriate and essential because of the threat of court action regarding the 51 pending death certificates.

Relocating the current staff to another office, Bryson wrote, was necessary because “you created a hostile work environment by your unprofessional behavior and inappropriate comments. Your repeated actions left me with no choice but to remove the staff in your office.”

Bryson noted the liability to the county from Nelson’s alleged behavior and wrote, “You were advised, the last time we removed staff from your supervision that your behavior was in violation of generally acceptable standards and specifically in violation of our unlawful discrimination and sexual harassment policy.

“Yet for the next 15 months, you continued to make derogatory, discriminatory, sexually inappropriate, and racially insensitive comments to public employees assigned to your office,” Bryson’s letter continued.

The letters from Nelson and on behalf of the commission from Bryson contain numerous other allegations and denials.

Among the issues raised in the letters is how the coroner’s office tracks its inventory from deaths that it investigates.

Nelson wrote that he supported assistance inventorying and tracking items in a reorganization of his evidence room.

He also noted that state law requires a county coroner to provide for the “descent disposal of an unclaimed dead human body and unclaimed parts of bodies believed to be human.”

If human remains that have been cremated are not claimed, the coroner’s office must bury them, Nelson wrote, adding that these remains are held in a secure area.

Bryson’s letter to Nelson doesn’t address cremated remains of human bodies but instead the storage and disposal procedures for human remains and body parts that, he wrote, “have caused considerable turmoil."

“I have asked the deputy coroner and evidence technician to inventory the materials in the morgue,” Bryson wrote.

“You have failed to provide me with an explanation for the voluminous amount of tissue and organs, some of which date back to 1986, that remain under your direct control,” his letter continued. “Law enforcement has indicated that approximately 10 specimen samples should be retained for investigative purposes. The remaining 70 (plus) samples, as of this date, have no investigative purpose. Yet they remain in an unorganized fashion, unrecorded until I requested the inventory be conducted, in a fridge and cabinet at the morgue.”

Nelson wrote of his interest in being aware of all deaths that happen in the county, even those of people who have been recently treated by physicians where a coroner’s involvement may not be required.

“My office exists to protect both the dead and the living,” he explained.

“It is unconscionable that someone outside of my office would question the wisdom and efficiency of coroner involvement that is intended to protect the most vulnerable segments of our society,” his letter stated.

Bryson wrote that he deferred to Nelson’s tenure and experience but also stated, “Your practice of responding to all attended deaths is an anomaly; and if you choose to allocate your limited time and resources performing non-essential field work instead of focusing your attention on the legal requirements of your office, that too, is your choice.”

Al Knauber can be reached at al.knauber@helenair.com

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I am a staff writer at the Independent Record covering primarily city and county governments.

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