County to combine coroner and sheriff positions -- Lawsuit over conflict of interest likely to continue

By: 
DEB HILL
News-Argus Managing Editor

Attorney Evan Thompson (left) discusses the county commissioners’ decision with Community Council member Jerry Hanley Thursday afternoon. Thompson represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Fergus County for allowing the coroner’s position to be filled by a funeral home owner.

Photo by Deb Hill

Tension was in the air Thursday afternoon as the Fergus County commissioners heard from the public on the concept of combining the coroner and sheriff positions. Approximately 30 people attended the hearing, the third the commissioners have held about consolidating the offices.

The consolidation idea arose after conflict of interest concerns were expressed over Coroner Dick Brown’s ownership of a funeral home while serving as coroner. The proposed consolidation would result in the sheriff serving as coroner, a situation that would begin after the 2018 election.

After hearing from some of those assembled Thursday, the commissioners voted 2-1 to combine the two elected offices.

Keep the status quo

On the side of keeping the sheriff and coroner’s offices separate were law enforcement personnel, including Sheriff Troy Eades, who warned the commission in July that his office is already fielding more than 3,000 calls a week. Adding coroner’s duties to the mix will require additional staff, equipment and office space, Eades said.

“I have enough on my plate,” Eades said Thursday. “I am plenty busy without taking on another task, one that’s an elected office which the voters have already taken a position on. I’ve been on many calls with the coroner, and I cannot say I’ve ever seen him do anything inappropriate.”

Also in support of the current system was Gary Boyce of Winifred, who made sure the commissioners had received a petition he said had over 250 names on it.

“All of these people want to keep the current elected officers the way they are, and they are against consolidation,” Boyce said. “I couldn’t find much opposition to keeping it the way it is. Why do we need to remove the coroner from office?”

“It seems combining the positions isn’t the answer,” Linda Anderson told the commissioners. “It seems the conflict comes when the coroner has to ask a family what funeral home to take the body to. Maybe the sheriff could do that – what if the sheriff’s department contacts the family and asks where to send the body?”

Change is needed

Speaking in favor of consolidating the two positions was Grass Range resident Jeannie Walter. Walter told of meeting with the coroner after her son died in the Fergus County Jail.

“I just wanted to see my son, I guess I wanted to make sure it was really him,” Walter said, her voice shaking with emotion. “The coroner said ‘no,’ that I could not see him because he wasn’t cleaned up after the autopsy. A few minutes later he pulled out a packet, acting as funeral director, and said he could clean my son up and put him in a room where I could see him. I was never asked what funeral home I wanted my son taken to.”

Scott Seilstad, chairman of the Community Council, explained the Council had been asked to review the same materials the commissioners received about the issue, and had determined it to be a conflict of interest.

“We reviewed this months ago,” Seilstad said. “After reading through the packet [of information] it became obvious there needed to be a change….Combining the offices seems the most useful way to deal with this, as you already have the sheriff at every scene anyway. There’s a window of opportunity now [before the next election cycle] and it’s time to look at it.”

Kendra Mihlfeld, who, along with her husband, Ralph, sued Fergus County over the issue of the coroner being a funeral home director, asked the commissioners if they knew of another county elected official who combined county and personal business.

“This is about conflict of interest. I can provide stories from [Montana newspapers] from decades ago about when other counties combined these positions and it worked,” Mihlfeld said.

Jerry Hanley said as an elected member of the Community Council, he was representing constituents who did not feel comfortable to speak publicly. Hanley read a portion of the Montana Association of Counties ethics paper in which a funeral home director serving as coroner is used as an example of conflict of interest.

“This decision should not be about Dick Brown, but about the office of the coroner,” Hanley said. “It should not be about past practices but about what is best for the future.”

Commissioners ponder the question

After closing the public hearing, the three commissioners discussed the proposal to consolidate.

Commissioner Ross Butcher said he felt there was an inherent conflict in a funeral home owner also serving as coroner.

“I think you can tell I’ve been torn about this,” Butcher said. “The question I think is the most important is, is this a conflict and what are we going to do about it? This is an issue of what’s best for the county.”

Butcher said the commission was “very limited” in what they could do about the situation.

Commissioner Sandy Youngbauer said her decision was political, not personal.

“I’ve used Cloyd Funeral Home three times and I’ve never had an issue. This is not a decision about their service,” she said.

Youngbauer acknowledged combining the positions may cost the county more, but felt there were ways the cost could be covered.

Carl Seilstad said he felt the commission should let the courts decide the issue by waiting for the lawsuits to go forward.

“We let lawsuits force us into a decision sometimes,” he said. “I think we should let the lawsuit go through, and the judge will tell us what we need to do. It’s going to cost money no matter which way we go.”

After all had spoken, Youngbauer made a motion to consolidate the two positions and Butcher seconded the motion. The vote was split, with Butcher and Youngbauer in favor of consolidation and Seilstad opposed.

Decision doesn’t change lawsuit

Evan Thompson, attorney for Ralph and Kendra Mihlfeld, told the News-Argus the lawsuit against Fergus County will continue forward despite the commission’s decision.

“Combining the positions doesn’t fully resolve the issues here,” he said.

 

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