Binding referendum considered to determine future of McHenry County Coroner's Office

Binding referendum considered to determine future of Coroner’s Office

The McHenry County Coroner’s Office has been under fire in recent weeks after the release of two evaluations highlighting numerous operational errors.

During an ad hoc committee meeting Wednesday, McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks said that these problems will not be solved by choosing coroners via election, especially when state law allows an 18-year-old registered voter living in the county with no medical experience to assume the role. He added that it makes little sense for the coroner to be a partisan position.

“There’s not a liberal way to sign a death certificate or a conservative way to transport a body,” Franks said.

Several county board members felt that the decision of whether to have an elected coroner or not should be up to the voters, which could be accomplished via a binding referendum – which had been done last year to eliminate the recorder’s office and fold it into the clerk’s office.

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally said he thinks it’s a fair question, especially when dealing with the highly specialized functions of the coroner’s office, to determine whether the electors are in the best position to hold the coroner accountable on a day-to-day basis.

“Elections provide accountability, but they also insulate accountability, and that accountability only comes up every four years,” Kenneally said. “And an incredible amount of damage can come during a four-year process where we’re not sufficiently doing criminal investigations and where things like overdose deaths aren’t being reported to the state’s attorney’s office and things of that nature.”

Following the resignation of former Coroner Anne Majewski, two evaluations of the coroner's office were conducted: one performed by the McHenry County Sheriff's Office – who is overseeing the office in an interim capacity – to determine security issues, and one from Dr. Dennis Kellar to determine medical and operational shortcomings.

To remedy some of the sheriff's office's findings, interim Coroner Lt. John Miller said the sheriff's office implemented a comprehensive evidence control policy based on the best practices and standards of the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners.

This included reducing access to secured areas of the coroner’s office, adding evidence lockers, adopting reporting procedures used in the sheriff’s office into the coroner’s office and designating property custodians to oversee all property and evidence obtained by the coroner’s office.

In closing, the MCSO report strongly recommended that the citizens of McHenry County be the final arbiters of the overall structure of the coroner’s office, either by passage of a referendum or by the election of a new coroner.

Sheriff Bill Prim added that the coroner’s office should maintain some level of autonomy.

Kellar, a pulmonologist practicing in Algonquin who was chosen by Franks to perform the independent evaluation based on his relevant experience, said one of the first eye-opening issues identified in his evaluation was a lack of accountability for the state statute-required training for the coroner and deputy coroner.

“If you don’t have qualified people to do this and nobody is overseeing it or if there’s no accountability, how can you ensure the quality of the work coming out?” Kellar askied. “And I think that’s the ultimate takeaway.”

Prim said the sheriff’s office determined that Majewski had obtained the necessary certification and training but deputies had not. He added that classes don’t run on a very frequent basis, but deputies are registered for the first available class in January.

Prim commended the deputy coroners as honest, smart and hardworking people, all of whom have degrees or advanced degrees in related disciplines.

Kellar also documented that tissue and body fluid samples were stored in a 10-year-old residential refrigerator with broken racks, a broken door and a padlock latch on the side that didn’t have a lock. These samples either were in containers similar to urine cups, in plastic Tupperware-style containers or wrapped in what appeared to be plastic wrap, according to the report.

Kenneally said none of the specimens stored at the coroner’s office are evidence in criminal prosecutions. Any samples taken for prosecution immediately are turned over to local police and, if necessary, sent to the Illinois State Police.

Prim said, under statute, the sheriff’s office probably could maintain control of the coroner’s office until the 2020 general election or until a decision is made on who will take control of the office.

Under state statute, in the event that the coroner position is vacant, a replacement must be named within 60 days of a formal declaration of the vacancy – a deadline the county missed.