Lewis and Clark County is considering whether to restructure the sheriff's position to absorb the coroner's duties.
The County Commission voted Tuesday to address the matter at a public meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. Dec. 19 in the commission's chambers at the City-County Building. If a decision to consolidate is reached, the combination would occur on Jan. 1, 2019.
The positions held by Sheriff Leo Dutton and Coroner Bryan Backeberg are currently up for election in November 2018. The filing period for both positions opens Jan. 11.
“The crux is effectiveness and efficiency,” Commissioner Jim McCormick said.
Backeberg is effective, McCormick added, but “this is a discussion any and every county should have.”
Backeberg said after the hearing that “I would like to see what happens moving forward,” before making a public statement about the commission's decision.
Commissioner Susan Good Geise noted that 38 of Montana’s 56 counties have combined the duties of their coroner and sheriff.
“It seems to be the right time to make the change,” Good Geise said, noting that former coroner Mickey Nelson died in 2016 after 42 years in that position.
“The man was a phenomenon,” Good Geise said. “We will never see his like again.”
“This is not a reaction to Nelson’s passing, it’s a logical time to make this decision,” Good Geise added. “It’s a matter of the best use of the tax payers’ dollar. We always need to look at more ways to be efficient.”
“Bryan has done a stellar job,” Good Geise said. “But the issue with independently elected officials is difficulties with oversight.”
“There’s a naturally occurring tension there,” Good Geise said of the relationship between county government and elected officials. “It’s a policy decision, the purpose is to run (the county) as efficiently as possible.”
Good Geise also wanted to head off worries about conflicts of interest. If someone were to die in the custody of the sheriff's office or in an officer-involved shooting, Lewis and Clark County would utilize another coroner from another county to look at the incident.
“We will make a decision in the best interest of Lewis and Clark County,” Good Geise said.