Coroner debate finds new stage at community council meeting

Jenny Gessaman

Monday saw a venue change for the county coroner conflict-of-interest debate as the Fergus County Community Council tackled the issue on behalf of county commissioners. The subject was the last item on the agenda, but generated the most discussion and revealed the Fergus County Attorney’s Office’s next possible move.

Chair Scott Seilstad opened by clarifying how the issue reached the community council.

“What the commissioners have requested is that we look at the pros and cons of a combined coroner/sheriff position versus the county coroner position we have now,” he said.

The Fergus County Commissioners’ referred the question of an independent or combined county coroner position at their June meeting, handing it off to the community council five days before their monthly meeting.

The Fergus County Attorney’s Office provided council members with a 126-page packet detailing the history and relevant legal precedents involved in the debate over the current coroner’s legality. The issue has generated the threat of lawsuit by Ralph and Kendra Mihlfeld over the current coroner’s conflict of interest.

Although the council was not asked to weigh in on the current conflict of interest debate, Seilstad pointed out the debate was what had prompted county commissioners to involve the council.

Deputy County Attorney Kent Sipe used the discussion to present a tentative county response.

“It would be cheaper for the county, and quicker, to get an attorney general’s opinion,” he said, adding the opinion would have the force of law.

Seilstad then asked Sipe about how long an attorney general’s opinion would take. Sipe was unsure about the response time, but assured the council it would be a shorter than a district court case.

He responded to several more questions about the debate, including the repercussions of an illegal coroner and the timetable for combining the sheriff and coroner positions.

The Fergus County Community Council then passed a motion to “recommend the county commissioners direct the county attorney request the attorney general’s opinion on the conflict of interest.”

Council members were conflicted on the question of whether or not to combine the coroner and sheriff positions in Fergus County. While consequences of each choice were discussed, conversation fluctuated between options for the coroner position and the current conflict of interest. Member Ryan Kuehn stated more opinions than the council’s were needed.

“We aren’t a silo, we shouldn’t be the ones initiating this,” he said. “We should get feedback from those affected.”

Seilstad agreed, suggesting the council talk to independent and combined-position coroners from other counties.

The Fergus County Community Council moved the commissioners’ question to their next meeting, when they will discuss the best way to evaluate the different coroner positions. Council members voted in May to not meet in July, and will next convene on August 16.

At the June Fergus County Commission meeting, the Mihlfeld’s attorney said the county had until August 10 to act, or the couple would file suit.


In other business

• Secretary/Treasurer Tom Wojtowick reported the Fergus County Community Council had $1,620.

“We haven’t spent a damn thing this year,” he said, laughing.

• Fergus County Coroner Dick Brown presented the duties of his job as part of the council’s lecture series about county officials.

• The Civilian Conservation Corps Camp Memorial is moving, according to council member Tom Wojtowick. He hoped to relocate the memorial, still in the planning stage, to a space facing the parking lot with the approval of the Fergus County Fair Commission.

• The Fergus County Community Council presented their review of the revised “Fergus County Road and Bridge Standards,” pointing out items such as misspellings, missing words and a title inconsistency. The council had few recommendations.

“Overall, I think it’s fine,” Secretary/Treasurer Tom Wojtowick said. “I went through with a fine-toothed comb.”



Where is your favorite place to go camping in Central Montana?