Race’s focus: Visible leader

GREENFIELD — Most residents only meet the county’s coroner in the wake of a tragedy; often a death has occurred, naturally or otherwise, and the elected death investigator is the one knocking on the front door alongside other first-responders with bad news.

Candidates seeking the coroner’s job say they are eager to change that — they want to make the office more visible to the community. Each has outlined plans for initiatives they hope will strengthen the office’s role in local public safety so the first time families meet the coroner isn’t during a crisis.

Four Republicans are vying for their party’s nomination on the fall ballot: current Chief Deputy Coroner Rudy Nylund; former coroner candidates Dan Devoy and Joe Fortner; and local funeral home director David Stillinger.

No Democrats, including current coroner Crystel Myers, filed to run in the primary, which takes place Tuesday.

The coroner is called upon to determine a person’s cause of death when it’s considered suspicious or if a person was alone when they died. The office oversaw 129 death investigations in 2015, officials said.

If elected, each Republican candidate has promised to restore the public’s trust in the office, claiming lackluster leadership from the last two elected coroners has left the office in need of a renewed reputation.

Nylund said he’d like to see the coroner establish a more prominent office space in a county-owned building. Currently, the coroner’s office is located in the basement of the Hancock County Jail. Nylund, who has served as a deputy coroner for 10 years, said the space is not conducive to meet with someone about their loved one’s death or for the public to come in and ask questions.

Moving the office space to a more accessible area will promote visibility of the coroner’s office, Nylund said.

Fortner, who works as the EMS coordinator for Hancock Regional Hospital, said educating the community is one of his top goals.

Fortner said he would lead the creation of a committee comprised of law enforcement, health care professionals and other local leaders to discuss the public safety topics that most commonly affect the county, including drug addiction and suicide rates. The committee would then facilitate programs in an effort to prevent some deaths from happening, Fortner said.

Devoy works as an investigator for Hancock County Community Corrections and believes there is value in having a person dedicated to fact-finding lead the coroner’s office. But the office currently lacks standard procedures that would ensure each death investigation is handled the same way, Devoy said.

If elected, Devoy would write and implement such procedures, which would improve investigations and regain the community’s trust, he said.

Stillinger has pledged to be more open about death trends in Hancock County. Right now, not much data is released to the public about what’s killing Hancock County residents, he said.

He would work with law enforcement to help residents better understand cases the county coroner investigates, he said. He has promised to make himself available upon request from community and school groups interested in learning about the coroner’s office and its role in the community.

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.