McHenry County Board OKs referendum that could eliminate elected coroner

County Board OKs referendum asking to make coroner an appointed role

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Six Illinois county coroners, one of whom came all the way from Champaign County, attended Tuesday’s McHenry County Board meeting in opposition of a binding referendum to make the McHenry County Coroner an appointed position.

Kendall County Coroner Jacquie Purcell said when she was running for office, one of the best pieces of advise was to trust the voters because they know what they’re doing. But discussing an option that would remove every McHenry County citizen’s right to vote for an elected official is a step in the wrong direction.

“Instituting a referendum to abolish the office of coroner in favor of an appointed position does not allow the citizens of McHenry County to exercise that right,” Purcell said. “I am certain that if the referendum were to read, ‘should we abolish the right of the citizens of McHenry County to decide who their elected officials are and leave the decision to a few individuals?’, the referendum would fail with a resounding no.”

However, the County Board voted, 15-7-1, to put the referendum on the ballot of November’s general election.

After the departure of Coroner Anne Majewski this year, the Coroner’s Office underwent two evaluations, one performed by the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office and one from Dr. Dennis Kellar, and both identified security and maintenance shortcomings. The Sheriff’s Office’s report concluded with a recommendation 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.

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 and adopting reporting procedures used in the Sheriff’s Office into the coroner’s office.

After the release of these reports, McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks – who was required under state statute to name a replacement coroner 60 days after a vacancy was formally declared – said the coroner’s office was broken and argued multiple times that leaving the coroner as an elected position could leave the county with an 18-year-old resident with no medical background.

Although no appointment process is in place to select a coroner, Franks has maintained that discussions will continue in the coming months to answer those questions.

Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrop said Franks and the County Board clearly have an unrecognized, vested interest in taking control of the coroner’s office away from an elected coroner. He also argued that several other elected county offices have minimal job requirements.

“Unfortunately, Mr. Franks appears to be speaking for a minority of the citizens of McHenry County who may wish to vote on whether the coroner is elected or appointed,” Northrop said. “If Chairman Franks is speaking for a majority of McHenry County citizens, then I say let the citizens gather petitions and obtain the minimum number of signatures to have the referendum placed on the ballot rather than having it forced on them by the board.”

As the Director of District 1 for the Illinois Coroners and Medical Examiners Association, Purcell said her organization has been in discussion on the best ways to help the new coroner become acclimated and trained as quickly as possible.

“We have the knowledge, the tools and the desire to see the office of coroner in McHenry County thrive and become successful,” Purcell said. “We stand ready and will be in full support of whomever the next coroner is – elected or appointed.”

Norm Vinton, Chief of the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office’s civil division, said that State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally is in favor of the referendum and believes that the coroner’s office is best run by a medical and managerial professional.

Board member Mike Skala said he wholeheartedly believes the coroner should remain as an elected position and would ask residents to vote against the referendum. However, he said a decision regarding the structure of the office should be up to the voters.

Opponents of the referendum included board member James Kearns, who said the referendum could take away the voters’ ability to remove a coroner they are dissatisfied with.

Board member Yvonne Barnes proposed an amendment, which was voted down by the full board, to make the referendum advisory instead of binding.

Three candidates have filed petitions to run for coroner: former McHenry County Board member Michael Rein, Angela Byrnes of Crystal Lake and Mark Justen of Justen Funeral Home and Crematory.

However, if the referendum were to pass, the position as an elected office would be eliminated Nov. 30.

“It’s definitely disappointing,” Byrnes said.

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