This November, McHenry County voters will decide through a binding referendum whether the coroner position should be eliminated as an elected office and replaced with a coroner appointed by the County Board.
County Board Chairman Jack Franks and State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally both said that an appointed coroner would bring more professionalism and efficiency to the office while also providing an easy opportunity to consolidate county government.
“We're giving the opportunity for the voters to weigh in on whether they want to keep the status quo of an elected, unaccountable coroner, who may or may not have any relevant skills, or allow us to professionalize the office and hire a full-time professional who can work on it,” Franks said.
The two candidates running for coroner this November are Kelly Liebmann, a Libertarian from Wonder Lake, and Michael Rein, a Republican from Woodstock. In a Sept. 10 interview, both candidates said the coroner should remain an elected position.
“I think that to keep death investigations separate from any outside corruption is why the people should be electing the coroner,” Rein said. “If it is appointed, the appointed corner is held over by either the County Board chairman, county administrator, County Board – any one of those people.”
Both also raised questions about a recent third-party evaluation that highlighted the need for improvements to the coroner's office, arguing that it was flawed.
The evaluation, conducted by Dr. Dennis Kellar in September 2019, called the coroner's office "abhorrent and dysfunctional," according to reporting by the Northwest Herald.
In the interview, Rein said it was improper to have the study done by Kellar, a pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist, who Rein said likely "never has seen the inside of a coroner's office."
Franks pushed back on this assertion Wednesday. He said Kellar has forensic experience as well as experience in the proper handling of the kinds of medical samples relevant to the work of the coroner's office, making him a reasonable choice for an outside evaluator.
Even without Kellar's analysis, Kenneally said an earlier report released by the McHenry County Sheriff's Office last August clearly showed that the office had been mishandling evidence, ignoring agency directives regarding best practices and failing to implement necessary security measures.
“When it comes to my position on the coroner’s office, it would be the same irrespective of the sheriff’s report or Dr. Kellar’s report,” Kenneally said. “I just think fundamentally and from a good government standpoint, you just don't need a coroner's office and a lot of times it causes more harm than good.”
Kenneally argued that hiring a full-time coroner and consolidating the coroner's office also could reduce costs for taxpayers in the long run.
While the county would have to pay a full-time, appointed coroner more, this sort of position would allow the office to cut staff and would save law enforcement time and money, he said.
The current structure of the coroner's office is such that the coroner acts as a "middle man," running the office and contracting medical pathologists who do the actual work of determining causes of death as needed, Kenneally said.
It is vital that the coroner's office is run by someone who can handle evidence appropriately so that it holds up in court and so that defense attorneys aren't able to question the reliability of any results, he said.
When the state's attorney's office needs a medical expert to testify about the cause of a death, it has to contract a qualified forensic pathologist, which can cost upward of $400 an hour plus extra fees for travel and for their testimony, Kenneally said.
“If it were a medical examiner or, let's say, a forensic pathologist that's doing all of the autopsies, that actually works as well as [how the coroner’s office currently] runs," he said. "I don't necessarily think that that would increase costs. Rather, I think that would probably decrease it."
Recent reports demonstrating the dysfunctional nature of the coroner's office have illustrated the need for a professional coroner that would be appointed using a stricter set of criteria, Franks said.
Currently, the only requirements to run for county coroner are that candidates must be at least 18 years of age, be a registered voter and have lived in McHenry County for at least 30 days. Those are the requirements for all countywide offices except for the state's attorney.
Making the move to an appointed coroner would bring a more specialized professional to the role and would give the County Board more oversight of the office, he said.
The two candidates vying to be the county's next coroner, Liebmann and Rein, said having an elected coroner helps maintain the autonomy of the office and places the decision-making power where it should be – in the hands of county voters.
“The coroner’s office needs to be autonomous from administration, from other politicians, … and I believe that the voters truly can choose the best coroner for the job,” Liebmann said.
The McHenry County Board also in December 2019 heard from six Illinois coroners, one of whom came all the way from Champaign County who raised concerns about the upcoming referendum.
If the referendum passes, it will take effect on Nov. 30. The McHenry County Board already has begun work on a position description and an outline of what the appointment process would look like in order to be prepared in the event that the referendum is passed, Franks said.
Kenneally recommended that, when and if an advisory committee is created to help with the appointment process, representatives from his office and law enforcement should be included since they work closely with the coroner's office.