North Carolina

Dealing with death is no longer part of the calling for this odd NC elected office

Nearly extinct, the role of a county coroner has shifted from prominence to obscurity over the last 50 years as the state established the State Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Since then counties have slowly been abolishing the position of county coroner, and now only four still exist in the state — Avery, Bladen, Hoke and Yadkin. Soon, only three could exist if House Bill 477 is voted on in the state Senate.

In May, the Bladen County Commissioners voted unanimously to send a resolution to their delegation in the General Assembly to abolish the position.

“I’d like to thank everybody for serving the county of Bladen for 17 years,” Bladen coroner Kenneth Clark said when the resolution was approved, according to the Bladen Journal. “I’ve done it with my heart. I sure haven’t done it with the $26 a week.”

Bladen County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Charles Ray Peterson told The NC Insider the neighboring counties have gotten rid of their coroners too.

“The state has chosen to go in a different direction, and we don’t need two people to do the same job,” Peterson said. “We can’t do anything about what the state does, but we can control what happens in Bladen County. It’s something that I feel like the state is taking away."

In the past, county coroners investigated deaths — especially those that happened under mysterious or criminal circumstances — and could fill the role of sheriff if it became vacant.

The office started becoming a thing of the past in the 1960s as the state transitioned to using a statewide medical examiner system to handle death investigations. According to legislative documents, between 1965 and 1967 medical doctors began being appointed as county medical examiners, signaling the beginning of the end for county coroners.

Then, in 1967, the state established the State Office of Chief Medical Examiner. With that office in place, coroners were no longer needed in many counties. Since then, 96 counties have abolished the office altogether.

While the Bladen coroner takes home a small salary, other county coroners don’t. James “Slim” Collins, the Yadkin County coroner, has served in the office since 2006, and jokes that he’s lost money being the coroner.

“It costs me every time I file. So I’m in a hole,” he said. John Millan, the Avery County coroner, also jokes about the zero-sum cost of his job. He doesn’t even have an office, unless you count his truck.

Both men have had similar experiences as county coroners, and it’s not like the 1980s television show “Quincy, M.E.” The title “coroner” evokes thoughts of dead bodies and autopsies, but for the most part they’re both far away from dealing with death. Collins, who previously worked for Yadkin County Emergency Management, has seen his fair share of dead bodies — just not in his role as coroner.

Millan, a retired law enforcement officer, has a background in forensics and death investigations and takes classes to keep his skills up to snuff. Otherwise, most of what he does is what he calls “community good” things, like helping people get death benefits or requesting autopsy reports from the state Medical Examiners Office.

“I’m sort of the odds and ends guys that people go to,” he said. Collins has also helped people who have been looking for death certificates or other death-related documents. In most cases, he just refers them to the Medical Examiner’s Office.

“I knew it didn’t have anything to do with dead bodies,” Collins said. “I knew the basic premise of it.”

The basic premise of a coroner today is a bit more complicated and archaic. State law requires a county coroner to step in if the sheriff leaves office — either retiring or being forced out — and the coroner is also in charge of issuing subpoenas to the sheriff.

Millan said he hasn’t had to worry about that aspect of his office. Collins hasn’t been quite as lucky. He’s had to serve papers on former sheriffs, and “things got sketchy” once when a sheriff announced he was preparing to resign. Collins said there was a lot of background work done so there was only a few minutes between when the sheriff resigned and when a new one was sworn in.

“If there had been some turmoil between the recommendations ... I would have had to step in for a few days (and be sheriff),” he said.

One of the “community good” acts Millan has done was help get a pothole filled. After hearing from a woman who was tired of the pothole, Millan called the N.C. Department of Transportation. When he didn’t get a response there he called the lieutenant governor’s office.

That prompted the DOT to call him back and ask him what fixing a pothole has to do with death. “Someone could get killed,” Millan responded.

County coroners still have ability to call “inquests” to investigate deaths if called upon. Millan said that when he took office in 2012, Avery County was inundated with overdose deaths from methamphetamines and opioids. There was talk then of potentially doing an inquest to look at the increase, but that never came to fruition. Now Millan is working with county commissioners to name some bridges and roads after fallen police officers.

Despite the nebulous nature of the county coroner role, Collins says he’s going to continue to serve.

“I’m probably the best thing for the public, for the taxpayers, because I don’t cost the taxpayer anything,” he said, adding the Yadkin County Commissioners haven’t discussed abolishing the position with him. “One of these days, when I have nothing else to do in life, I may decide to run for another office,” Collins said. “This was like the easiest way to get myself into the political waters without making a lot of waves.”

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Domecast politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Megaphone, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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