Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Oconee Coroner Candidates To Meet in Runoff

Incumbent to Leave "Office"

Oconee County voters are being asked to go to the polls again on August 5 to select someone for an office that most people probably know little and care even less about.

Because none of the three candidates for coroner in the July 15 Republican primary received a majority of votes, the two top candidates–Cathleen Quillian-Carr and Ed Carson–are in a runoff on August 5.

No candidates filed to run as a Democrat or an independent, so the August 5 vote will determine who will serve as coroner for the next four years.

The coroner is responsible for determining the cause of death when a person dies as a result of violence, suicide or an accident. The coroner also must determine the cause and manner of death if someone dies unattended.

So the most common encounter the average citizen has with a coroner is if a loved one dies unexpectedly at home.

The coroner asks questions of the bereaved and examines the death scene, so a good coroner knows what to investigate and how to talk with people, usually under very difficult circumstances.

The coroner also has to work with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to determine if an autopsy needs to be performed. Any autopsy will be done by medical examiners at GBI, not the coroner.

Coroners can be viewed as heads of a small, local, governmental department. The county Board of Commissioners provides the funds to run the department and provides office space, though incumbent Oconee County Coroner John Simpson operates out of his personal office.

In Georgia, coroners are elected except in a few counties that have abolished the position in favor of an appointed medical examiner.

Each coroner must have at least one deputy.

When the election began in June, incumbent Coroner Simpson, who is stepping down, had two deputies, Carson and Quillian-Carr.

Simpson endorsed Quillian-Carr, who has been a deputy since 2007, and in the middle of June he dismissed Carson, who had been his deputy for 10 years.

In early July Simpson appointed Bryan Hooper, a chiropractor, as the new second deputy.

Hooper also is the campaign treasurer for Quillian-Carr.

The main issues in the election seem to be the needed qualification of the coroner and the actions of Simpson.

Quillian-Carr has said the county needs a physician who has practice and training in how to deal with patients. Carson says the county needs someone trained in death scene investigations.

Simpson’s endorsement of Quillian-Carr, dismissal of Carson and selection of Hooper as his new deputy have raised questions about Simpson’s judgment.

With Quillian-Carr the favored deputy in the campaign, Carson openly questioned how Simpson ran the office of coroner in such settings as the candidate forum organized by local citizen groups on June 2.

Carson said when he received a letter from Simpson on June 18 informing him he had been dismissed Simpson complained about recent statements Carson had made and said that Carson needed to learn "not to bite the hand that feeds you."

Quillian-Carr, 43, is a doctor of osteopathy with a family practice in Oconee County.

Carson, 45, is an emergency medical technician at St. Mary’s Hospital.

Quillian-Carr got 2,759 votes in the July 15 primary, and Carson got 2,129. Former coroner Bill Mayberry got 1,090 votes. Mayberry has endorsed Carson, so a shift of Mayberry’s votes to Carson would be enough to give him the election.

But a simple shift of that sort is unlikely. In fact, it is unlikely anything like the 5,978 voters who cast a ballot for coroner on July 15 will return to the polls on August 5. All of these voters are eligible to vote, as are registered voters who did not vote on July 15. Voters who selected the Democratic ballot on July 15 cannot vote in the coroner runoff election.

Sheriff Scott Berry has endorsed Quillian-Carr, but it is hard to know if that will help or hurt her. Not everyone loves Berry. The sheriff and the coroner must work together at death scenes, and the coroner serves as sheriff in the case of a vacancy until the probate court judge appoints a replacement sheriff.

Neither candidate raised or spent much money during the first month of the campaign.

According to the Campaign Contribution Disclosure Report filed by Quillian-Carr on June 27, she raised $724, all from donations of under $101, and spent $461 for campaign materials.

Hooper, the chiropractor appointed deputy coroner a few days later, signed the report.

Carson raised $2,810, including a $775 loan he made to his campaign. He raised $785 in donations of less than $101 each and $1,250 in five donations between $200 and $300. He spent $2,086 on advertising and signs.

I sent both candidates a list of seven questions on July 25. Quillian-Carr responded later that same day, and Carson responded the next.

The unedited responses of the two candidates are available here.

Carson said voters should pick him on Aug. 5 because of his experience as an investigator of death scenes. He said the major change he would make as coroner is to set up an office for the coroner and do more of the work himself so he would need only one deputy.

Quillian-Carr said voters should pick her as the next coroner because of her leadership skills and her compassion. She said she also would set up an office for the coroner.

I asked the candidates to review the 2007-8 and 2008-9 budgets for the coroner office. Quillian-Carr said she would talk to Simpson to get the information needed and gave the most detailed response. Carson said he had turned in all his files when he was relieved of his duties and had to guess about some of the figures.

According to Quillian-Carr, the total budget for the coroner office in 2007-8 was $25,347, and the total requested for the office for 2008-9 was $20,847. The coroner was paid $4,507 last year and will be paid $5,997 this year.

Carson said he felt he actually could spend less than the amount budgeted for 2008-9 since he would only have one deputy. Deputy coroners are paid $175 for each call they make.

The amounts of money spent in the last fiscal year and budged for this are not large, but the money comes from taxpayers.

That alone should be an incentive for voting.

Another is what happens when citizens do not vote.

Oconee County Board of Commission Chairman Melvin Davis, who beat challenger Sarah Bell by only 100 votes on July 15, is quoted in the July 24 issue of The Oconee Leader as minimizing the challenge because only 34 percent of the registered voters turned out.

Some of those people stayed home because they thought "everything is going okay," Davis is quoted as saying. "Its hard to read any kind of mandate, whether you won by a large margin or a close margin."

In the July 15 election for School board, all of the candidates listed first received the majority, suggesting that voters were not being too thoughtful in their choices.

This is true despite the fact that much of our taxes is controlled by the Board of Education. At the Board of Commissioners meeting last night, the tax rate was set at 17.5 mills (one tenth of a cent per assessed property value) to fund Oconee County schools and only 6.7 mills to fund county government–including the coroner’s office.

As long as the coroner is selected directly by the electorate rather than appointed by other elected officials, it makes sense for all of us to get involved in the choice.

The Athens Banner-Herald and The Oconee Leader have run stories providing additional background on the race.

A video of the candidate forum is on the web. I, by the way, was the moderator. The Chamber of Commerce did not include the coroner candidates in either of its two candidate forums.

Both candidates were interviewed by WGAU’s Tim Bryant today. The interviews can be listened to or downloaded at the WGAU web site.

Former Oconee County Board of Commission Chairman Wendell Dawson also offers comments about the race on his web site posting today.

Not voting on August 5 only means that someone else is going to make the choice.

It makes more sense to consider which of the two candidates will do the better job of providing the services required of the office and to turn out to vote before the polls close at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

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