You might argue that it wasn't the most important issue that the county will face this year, and after a short but fierce bout, during which I manage to rip out one of your eyeballs before you shatter my elbow and grind my face into the pavement, I would concede the point. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable Tuesday to watch a popular uprising upend the ill-conceived plan to consolidate the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office with the office of the County Coroner. This is something that happens all too rarely.
When this came before the board three weeks ago, Supervisor Jill Duffy was absent and the board split on the matter 2-2. The idea was that the county could save some money and consolidate government by permanently expanding Sheriff Gary Philp's domain to include the coroner and public administrator's office, an elected position that was recently vacated by longtime coroner Frank Jager. Philp himself was entirely ambivalent about the proposal, which people higher up quietly started bandying about a couple of years before Jager's actual retirement and the current budget crisis.
A couple of weeks before the supervisors actually put the thing on their agenda, though, there arose a great hue and cry from people who resented the idea of the board taking away one of the county's independently elected positions. (The Times-Standard, it must be said, did an admirable job of leading the charge.) Supervisors Jimmy Smith and Mark Lovelace took the matter to heart and voted nay; Supervisors Bonnie Neely and Clif Clendenen voted yes. And so it was tabled until Tuesday, with Duffy there as the deciding vote.
In board chambers, there was the expected outpouring of public indignation at the consolidation plan. Only former County Administrative Officer John Murray held up the pro-consolidation flag, arguing that people didn't really have the time or inclination to care who their coroner was. But when it came back to the board for discussion, and when Duffy took her turn to speak, it was clear that the thing was sunk. The potential savings were insignificant, she argued -- $65,000 per year at the most, according to staff's forecasts. A minuscule percentage of the county budget. So what justified eliminating an elected office in a democratic nation? Why?
Shrewdly taking in the weather forecast, Supervisor Neely suddenly declared that both options -- consolidation and independence -- were good ones. So what the hay, the people had spoken; she would go with independence. This left the newbie Clendenen twisting in the wind, facing the uncomfortable option of either performing his own reverse triple lutz or hanging fire with the unpopular butt end of a 4-1 vote. He chose the latter course. "I would agree, the savings aren't the driver here," said Clendenen after Duffy and Lovelace each went a few rounds each on the theme. Unfortunately, he never got around to saying what the driver was.
And so consolidation was defeated for the foreseeable future, but maybe there needs to be one more word said about why the issue was important. During the deliberations, much was made of the argument that that the coroner's independence is important when someone dies at the hands of a Sheriff's deputy, or a jailer, or any other member of one of the county's police forces. It just doesn't do to have members of your own squad, or even those of brother organizations, be the only official word on the investigation of bad shootings. This is an undeniable fact. The investigators in question might be as pure as they come, but the cloud lurking over such cases is nevertheless hard to dispel.
In truth, though, the matter runs much deeper. An independent coroner's office can tell uncomfortable truths about many matters that various bureaucratic agencies would wish swept under the rug when a death happens on their watch. Such, in fact, has been the case in recent years. The independent coroner's office has given the public facts in matters ranging from the EPD shooting of Cheri Lyn Moore to the jail death of Martin Cotton to a suicide outside the county mental health office. Truth be known, the move to eliminate the Coroner's Office stemmed in no small part from its ability and willingness to release information to the public, and the relative inability of anyone else to punish the office for such indiscretions.
The people of Humboldt County, and especially those who squawked loudly in recent weeks, deserve credit for providing a chance to keep this tradition of independence alive.