Sunday, September 22, 2019

Winnebago County supervisors back switch to medical examiner but details still need to be worked out

Screenshot from Oshkosh Media.
Supervisor Bill Wingren, of Oshkosh, heads the committee that will develop options for the coroner function.
By Miles Maguire
The Winnebago County Board of Supervisors has voted to abolish the coroner’s position and move to a medical examiner system, but there are still many details to be worked out.

At its Sept. 17 meeting, the supervisors voted 33-1 to make the change. The only negative vote was from Susan Locke, of Menasha, who was also one of the handful of supervisors who did not endorse the board’s Aug. 20 vote of no confidence in current Coroner Barry L. Busby.

The vote “is the first step in a process,” said Bill Wingren, of Oshkosh, who chairs the county’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. The medical examiner approach will mean “a new way of delivering services to our citizens ... that is efficient and effective and professional.”

This is not the first time that a proposal has been made to do away with an elected coroner, who does not have to have specific training, and instead hire a medical examiner with minimum qualifications. 

But reports about Busby’s conduct in office, which led him to hand in his resignation effective Oct. 31, convinced supervisors that a new approach is necessary.  “It’s time to take advantage of this opportunity,” Wingren said. “It’s a time to reform and a time to transform.”

“I believe everybody has been following the news the last few months,” said Supervisor Joel Rasmussen, whose district lies on the south shore of Lake Butte des Morts. “This doesn’t need a lot of discussion. It’s a no-brainer.”

Starting in June reports in the Oshkosh Examiner and Oshkosh Herald described the concerns of top county officials about Busby’s erratic work performance. The articles included information about Busby’s absence from the state, his removal from office of a longtime deputy and allegations of multiple cases of sexual harassment.

The new system will be implemented no later than 2023, after the current term of office ends for the coroner. It is up to Gov. Tony Evers to appoint Busby’s replacement, and that person could agree to adopt the medical examiner approach sooner. 

In the meantime, the judiciary committee will examine at least six different ways to handle the duties of a coroner, which are primarily to investigate suspicious deaths. Under different scenarios, the person in the position might be required to have a medical degree or training as a pathologist, said Supervisor Paul Eisen, of Menasha.

In the past, objections have been raised about the higher costs of having higher credentials. But other counties have found that they could control costs by working with neighboring jurisdictions to share expenses. “Our neighbor to the south, Fond du Lac, employs a pathologist as a medical examiner,” Eisen said. “If we were to join up with them, we could get that expertise” without taking on its full cost.

The new medical examiner could also be required to shoulder more of the load directly, rather than relying on part-time assistants to coordinate the recovery of bodies and their transfer to a morgue for autopsy. 

“We really don’t have preconceived notions of what is right for Winnebago County,” said Supervisor Vicki S. Schorse, who represents a part of Oshkosh along the east side of the Fox River. Like Eisen she is a member of the judiciary committee.

She said the committee will work with County Executive Mark Harris, local funeral directors and community members and then come back with a range of options from which the supervisors can pick.

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