Transparency, community outreach issues for Lake County coroner candidates
The race for Lake County coroner has a Republican incumbent who wants to continue a record of reform and improvement facing a Democratic challenger who is running on a commitment to serve the community.
Wadsworth resident Howard Cooper, who is seeking a second 4-year term, is running against Jennifer Banek, a nurse anesthesiologist from Green Oaks.
Cooper, a dentist, has done dental identifications as part of disaster and mortuary response teams, including at the World Trade Center site in New York and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Cooper said he professionalized an office that had fallen into "ethical disrepute" and increased transparency. He was the first coroner since 2004 to produce an annual report and first since 2006 to hold inquests, which allow the public to rule on the cause and manner of death.
The office, he said, is the second in Illinois to be accredited by the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners. Cooper said mass disaster and pandemic plans for Lake County have been developed and the latter has been crucial in COVID-19 response.
Banek, a captain in the Army Reserve, cited her history of volunteerism and commitment to community service as a reason for running. She said she would provide an increased sense of advocacy, professionalism and collaboration. "I'm an advocate for patients and I'd like to be an advocate for Lake County residents," she said.
Banek was elected to the Cook Memorial Public Library District board in 2019 and serves as its secretary. She said she would resign that post if elected coroner.
Banek said she would advocate for residents by talking with legislators about preventable deaths and by connecting residents to resources.
She described the coroner's website as being "a little difficult to navigate" and would update it. Information should be readily available without special requests, she added.
Cooper said the office gets 54,000 phone calls a year.
"We certainly get calls all the time for statistics," he said. "There's no secrets in our office."
Banek said it's important for the coroner to be at county board meetings and submit detailed monthly reports to be a voice for the office.
Cooper said he has tried for a year but isn't being allowed to address the board.
"I would love to get a chance to speak with the board," he said. "It's very frustrating."
Monthly reports wouldn't be useful because information can't be shared on pending cases, according to Cooper.
Cooper said issues like drug overdoses and suicide need to be targeted, and those issues are not confined to the young.
"We try to get out to everybody," he said. "Death prevention is a priority for me. We want people to live."
Banek said the coroner position combines her medical expertise, dedication to public service and commitment to collaborating with initiatives to fight an increasing trend of narcotics overdoses.
Cooper said the office is the busiest it has ever been -- deaths are up more than 700 over the same time last year because of COVID-19, drug overdoses and suicides.
"Most importantly, we're there for the families," he said. "Certainly people that die is part of what we do, but, really, it's the living that we help every single day."