GUEST COLUMN: Coroner’s office mess the result of multiple failures

McHenry County taxpayers should be infuriated with the top-to-bottom dysfunction at the Coroner’s Office.

Dual reports delivered since the departure of the former coroner paint a damning portrait of an office that is so broken that it cannot faithfully execute its statutory duties. The office tasked with determining cause of death and treating the bereaved with dignity and respect is in, to quote the latest report, an “absolute abhorrent and dysfunctional state.”

This did not happen overnight. It is the result of years of neglect by our elected coroners and by a failure of oversight by our County Auditor.

I wish I could write that this is the only troubled county elected office. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and it points to a much deeper problem.

Shortly after my election, our staff found that the annual audits of our Regional Office of Education by the Illinois Auditor General’s Office had repeatedly revealed material noncompliance with state financial regulations. The office, under the tenure of Regional Superintendent Leslie Schermerhorn, has racked up five consecutive years of audits uncovering a litany of major deficiencies, which were never addressed or fixed. Our ROE ranks as among the worst of the state’s 35 educational service regions.

We’re supposed to have a safeguard in place. McHenry County is one of the few Illinois counties that maintains an elected office of Auditor, which is tasked under statute with auditing county government offices. Instead of identifying these issues, Auditor Shannon Teresi has allowed it to fester, and criticized the commissioning of an outside, independent evaluation of the Coroner’s Office.

Teresi cannot plead ignorance of these problems – she has been an internal auditor of the county since 2010, and in 2016 was promoted to chief deputy. She knew or should have known of these issues, but has turned a blind eye.

Despite Teresi being a certified internal auditor, she has been forced repeatedly during her tenure to correct her frequent misinterpretations of state law and county ordinance. Recently, she has even made up nonexistent rules in an effort to thwart the evaluation of the Coroner’s Office. In the meantime, under Teresi’s watch, our regional superintendent has been unable to accurately account for her expenses, and tens of thousands of dollars in cash lay uninventoried and unsecured in the Coroner’s Office.

The elected official who is supposed to be our taxpayer watchdog is fiddling while Rome burns.

Why does all this matter? Simply put, you, the taxpayer, will end up footing the bills racked up by all this incompetence.

Past coroners, again to quote the most recent report, have left the county facing an “incalculable liability exposure” from next-of-kin whose cases are mishandled. Alarmingly, financial concerns are only some of the potentially troublesome outcomes.

How hard will it be for the foreseeable future for a defense attorney to get evidence handled by the Coroner’s Office ruled inadmissible? How long before an accused killer walks free because forensic evidence was mishandled?

I believe the root of many of these problems lies in the fact that these offices are partisan elected ones, and have no independent oversight.

To be elected McHenry County Coroner or County Auditor under state law, you have to be 18, live in the county and be a registered voter. That’s all. This worked in the days before forensic science, when causes of death consisted of getting old, getting sick or getting killed, either accidentally or intentionally. Yet here we are, in 2019, choosing coroners based on rules first set when our ancestors settled McHenry County in covered wagons.

Most Illinois counties don’t have elected auditors. Our office was created in 1964 for the purpose of giving the McHenry County Republican Party chairman, a meat cutter by trade, a government patronage job. History tends to repeat itself – the county GOP’s suggested coroner nominee is a former County Board member with no forensic training. Party leadership’s sole concern is installing a loyal foot soldier to a six-figure, taxpayer-funded job, rather than someone with the skills and background needed to fix what’s broken.

These should not be political positions, plain and simple. There is no liberal versus conservative way to conduct an autopsy, conduct a forensic audit or fingerprint a school bus driver. McHenry County should have a professional running our Coroner’s Office, and its auditor should be an independent person, free of party labels that can taint who and what are investigated. We need an independent Inspector General, not another partisan officeholder.

Regional superintendents are mandated by state statute, but there is a growing call to consolidate them further or eliminate them altogether. I support this, and hope the General Assembly will eliminate this needless office, a vestige that predates the Civil War.

In my almost three years since being elected County Board Chairman, a majority of the board and I have worked together to lower our tax levy, rebate surplus funds back to homeowners, dramatically increase transparency and, with your help, impose term limits on ourselves.

But while we have publicly strengthened our own house, the rot has set in elsewhere in darkness. These serious problems are potentially catastrophic, and they must be fixed. We need major structural change in our county government. The people of McHenry County deserve nothing less.

• Jack D. Franks, D-Marengo, is McHenry County Board Chairman.