If there is any benefit to the sheriff and coroner consolidation approved by the Lewis and Clark County Commission, we haven’t been able to identify it.
As a result of a 2-1 county commission vote on Dec. 19, the sheriff will absorb the coroner’s duties on Jan. 1, 2019. Commissioners Susan Good-Geise and Andy Hunthausen both voted for the consolidation, and Commissioner Jim McCormick was firmly against it.
McCormick argued there is simply no reason to fix what isn’t broken. We couldn’t agree more, and it seems counterintuitive for Lewis and Clark County to willingly combine the two positions as counties in other states are actively trying to split them up.
Though many counties have combined the two positions in an effort to reduce expenses, Lewis and Clark County could actually end up paying a lot more as a result of the consolidation.
Our county commissioners have expressed interest in raising the sheriff’s compensation to take on the extra duties, which seems only fair, but they may not be able to do so without giving deputies a raise as well.
Since the compensation for sworn deputies is set as a percentage of the sheriff’s pay, raising the sheriff’s salary by only a few thousand dollars could cost the county hundreds of thousands more. County officials say the only way to eliminate the cost of the consolidation is to add nothing to the sheriff’s current salary, which is not something the commissioners have agreed to do.
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Even if the consolidation doesn’t end up costing more, it certainly doesn't look like it will save the county anything. And we’re not convinced it’s going to accomplish anything either.
The sheriff and the coroner serve two very different, specialized functions. And the current separation of powers provides important checks and balances that will be lost when the two positions are combined.
The sheriff and coroner will no longer be able to evaluate each other’s work after the two positions become one, because they will be filled by the same person. The consolidation will also force the county to bring in a coroner from another county to look into any deaths that occur at the detention center or involve deputies, as the sheriff’s office cannot investigate itself without a major conflict of interest.
We don’t buy the argument that the consolidation will improve oversight of the coroner’s office. Neither the coroner nor the sheriff report to the county commission, so we don’t see how combining the two independently elected positions would affect the county’s oversight in any way.
We are also unconvinced that the consolidation will result in any additional transparency for the public. We’ve witnessed intense public scrutiny of both the coroner’s office and the sheriff’s office in recent years, and that won’t change regardless of how they are configured.
During Bryan Backeberg’s 15 months as coroner, his office has effectively disposed of a backlog of human tissue samples dating back several decades, implemented an interactive computerized database for all cases, and started the process of returning money, guns and other valuable items of evidence that had been locked up for years.
So we clearly aren’t suffering from an ineffective coroner. Nor were we lacking a qualified coroner candidate in the November 2018 election, as Backeberg previously said he was planning to run.
After discussing these issues with county officials, we still can’t help but wonder: What were they thinking?
This appears to be a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. And we believe county officials need to find a way to reverse the commission’s decision, even if that requires a vote of the people.