Voters to decide whether McHenry County coroner should be elected or appointed

  • McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks says he believes the coroner's office should be led by an appointed professional, rather than an elected official. Voters will now decide the future of the position in a binding referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot.

      McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks says he believes the coroner's office should be led by an appointed professional, rather than an elected official. Voters will now decide the future of the position in a binding referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 12/19/2019 5:02 PM

A shadow of uncertainty has been cast on the future of the McHenry County coroner's office amid debates over whether its leader should be elected or appointed.

That decision will now be in the hands of voters next fall.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The county board voted 15-7 this week to place a binding question on the Nov. 3 ballot seeking to abolish the coroner as an elected position. If the measure is approved, board members would be responsible for choosing the coroner, who oversees the investigation and certification of the causes and manner of deaths.

The concept was introduced by board Chairman Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat, who called for an evaluation of the office after former Republican Coroner Anne Majewski resigned in March for health reasons. Studies were completed by the sheriff's office and a third-party doctor, and a committee was created to examine options for addressing what Franks says has been the history of dysfunction and neglect in the coroner's office.

"It's not going to be fixed by hoping that someone with the right skills and personality wins this election," he told board members Tuesday. "Even if our coroner's office wasn't in shambles, this situation would be screaming for a change."

Under Illinois law, a candidate must be 18 or older, a registered voter and a McHenry County resident. With those being the only qualifications, Franks said, the office's top seat could be held by someone with no medical degree, no knowledge of forensic sciences and no prior experience conducting an autopsy or reading a toxicology report.

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But some county board members said they fear appointing the position would lead to cronyism, conflicts of interest and other unintended consequences.

During a death investigation, the coroner works in tandem with the state's attorney and sheriff, board member Chuck Wheeler said, but each office plays its own role and maintains its independence. Electing those officials ensures they continue working for the citizenry, he said, and are not influenced by outside pressures.

"We can't in this county have a puppeteer pulling strings when he or she is not pleased with the outcomes that may occur," Wheeler said. "(Appointing the coroner) won't save money. It won't increase the professionalism. It will concentrate power."

Those concerns were echoed by Jacquie Purcell of Kendall County and Duane Northrup of downstate Champaign County, who were among six elected coroners from throughout the state to attend Tuesday's meeting.

Regardless of their credentials, Northrup said, coroners must complete extensive training when they are first elected and undergo continuing education each year thereafter. The office's hired staff members are typically vastly qualified, he said, while the coroners are chosen by voters to ensure autonomy.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Franks argued that as a "highly technical position" earning a pension and six-figure salary, the coroner needs to be a full-time professional.

"We're trying to modernize and professionalize our government," he said. "I'm not going to perpetuate a broken system. I'm here to change the system."

Franks has accepted applications from candidates -- including one backed by the county's Republican Party -- interested in filling the remainder of Majewski's term, but he says none were qualified for the role. He ultimately decided against filling the vacancy, despite the state's 60-day limit to find a replacement.

The office is being overseen by the sheriff's office, with Lt. John Miller serving as interim coroner. In a report, the sheriff's office recommended the coroner remain autonomous moving forward and residents "be the final arbiters of the structure of the coroner's office, either by referendum or by the election of a new coroner."

A separate study from a medical doctor suggests direct oversight is needed to address issues of inefficiency and lack of accountability in the office, though some board members questioned the validity and handling of that evaluation.

Michael Skala was among the board members who supported giving voters a chance to weigh in, despite their beliefs the coroner should be elected. Others said placing the question on the ballot was a rushed decision and needed to be more thoroughly vetted.

The board's next step will be determining a process for hiring the coroner, should voters approve the proposal. Those policies will be in place "well before" the November election, Franks said.

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