Madison County Commission and Coroner-elect

Madison County Commissioner Bob Harrison beclowned himself this morning at the Madison County Commission meeting, saying that “there are funeral homes that won’t handle African American bodies”.  I couldn’t believe that statement to be true, so I called all ten funeral homes in Madison County to be sure (it’s not true).  The representative at Nelms Memorial Funeral Home summed it up best: “I know that all of the funeral homes in the county handle everyone”.   It won’t surprise anyone to know that Bob Harrison misspoke while insulting funeral home operators in Madison County.

***

I attended the Madison County Commission meeting this morning since Coroner-elect Craig Whisenant was on the agenda.  After County Attorney Julian Butler reviewed the applicable laws for Coroner (legislative action is necessary for more than a vehicle and the existing salary / expenses),  Whisenant said he is “absolutely, positively ready to take office, there will be no disruption in service”.  Whisenant also said that he is “trying to make the Coroner’s office a legitimate office”.

Whisenant has a copy of his Report to the Madison County Commission presented December 6, 2010 available on PDF:

While it is evident that the Madison County Coroner’s Office is severely underfunded based on the operating expenses of neighboring counties, I cannot accurately determine budgetary needs until I receive the outgoing coroner’s books and have the results of an audit.  The outgoing coroner is on record stating that he does not know how much it costs to operate the Maadison County Coroner’s Office. 

Whisenant said that he will attend the continuing education course (as required by law); he plans to develop a mutual aid agreement with neighboring counties in case of a mass casualty disaster; and he will implement the State Department of Public Health information / automation system.

Whisenant asked for a vehicle to transport human remains and asked for “prior approval” of three Deputy Coroners.

***

Former Madison County Coroner and Spry Funeral Home owner Sam Spry rose to support Whisenant, as did John Purdy of Laughlin Service Funeral Home.  Spry began with remembrances of how ambulance services used to be run out of funeral homes and then noted to the Commission that he “never asked for anything except space to bury indigents”.

Spry said “when Berryhill says he takes money out of his pocket [to fund the Coroner's office], he is well compensated”.  Spry said “I know that there are families he [Berryhill] has solicited” and “don’t think for a minute that his presence doesn’t have an influence on people [making funeral decisions]“.

Spry said “Whisenant is trying to do this ethically… There is an advantage to this office for those who run funeral homes… For twenty years Berryhill hasn’t transported a body to Spry”.

County Attorney Butler asked Spry to stop discussing Berryhill, under the rationale that Berryhill wasn’t there to respond.

***

The Huntsville Times reported on the first couple of minutes of the Coroner’s office discussion in their article “Coroner must go to Legislature, not Madison County Commission for more money”.  I’m certain that they’ll report about Harrison’s race-baiting and Spry’s comments later…

Coroner-elect Craig Whisenant

Here are some bits from an email conversation (used with permission) with Madison County Coroner-elect Craig Whisenant.  Y’all are going to be happy we elected Whisenant:

As the newly elected Coroner here in Madison County, I see it as absolutely vital that we remove the Coroner’s office from any private business.
 
Please consider the following scenario:  The county Coroner is transporting human remains from a crime scene to the Department of Forensic Science for an autopsy.  He is using his personal automobile (van/suv/etc) as a transport vehicle.  What happens if the Coroner has an automobile accident?
  
Secondly, human bodies that are in the care of the coroner should be kept in a secure, neutral location – not a private place of business.  By keeping human remains in a private place of business, the door is open for accusations that evidence has been tampered with.  From a legal perspective, it is only prudent for the county to handle county business.  Private businesses should not have to subsidize the Coroner’s office – or any other government office for that matter.  We can’t expect local funeral homes to provide for our county government.
Therefore, I believe that we must remove the Coroner’s office from any private business and use county resources to handle the responsibilities of the county in regard to facilities and automobiles.  Providing a proper facility and an automobile would fall to the County Commission.  I believe this could be a possible reality at no additional expense to the county.

More:

The Coroner’s office here in Madison County does have a small 10k budget that can be used at the coroner’s discretion.  We believe that there is space designated for the coroner’s use at the Madison County Courthouse but that it hasn’t been used in many years since the Coroner has officed out of local funeral homes for most of the last hundred years.  I talked to one of our county commissioners tonight and the options for office space are being looked into.  Also, the county does have a fleet and we believe that there may possibly be an older, used vehicle that would be suitable for the Coroner’s use.  

By the way, the Limestone County Coroner has both a van for transporting remains as well as a sedan that he normally drives. I also know that the Morgan and Colbert County Coroners both have county vehicles that they are able to use.   The Madison County Coroner’s caseload far exceeds that of any of our surrounding counties, yet it appears we have the smallest budget by far.  I hope to increase the efficiency and responsiveness of the office without placing any further financial demands on the county commission.  Unfortunately, I won’t know exactly what I’m walking into until I take office.   I do know that one of the county commissioners told me that the coroner’s office has not been discussed in a commission meeting since he’s been on the commission (10 years).
Lastly, I am already working with experienced coroners in surrounding counties and with the Alabama Coroner’s Association to make sure that we’re going to be on the cutting edge here in Madison County.  I have the guidance and support of Sam Spry, long-time Madison County Coroner, as well as a deputy coroner who served under the current coroner.   I will do my best to give you updates about our progress as time goes by and we have an opportunity to make some things happen.
Thanks to Craig Whisenant for sharing his thoughts with us.