LOCKPORT — A county legislative panel will recommend a replacement for the newly resigned Fourth District county coroner — and possible improvements to the local coroner system.
Niagara County Legislature Chairman William Ross on Tuesday appointed all seven members of the legislature’s community safety and security committee to an ad hoc coroners’ reform committee. The panel, led by North Tonawanda legislator Paul Wojtaszek, will recommend a replacement for former elected Coroner Russell Jackman II, who resigned the office Monday ahead of his guilty plea to a criminal charge involving mishandling of human remains.
The panel also will research and examine possible “reforms” of the county coroner system, Wojtaszek said. Members of the community safety committee had already been researching the coroner systems in other counties, with the hope of identifying better or more efficient models, and then the Jackman scandal broke and “expose(d) structural problems of the office,” he said.
“I’m not saying we need wholesale changes at this point, but I think we need to look at it,” Wojtaszek said.
In Cambria Town Court on Tuesday, Jackman, of Wilson, pleaded guilty to a single charge of obstructing governmental administration, after he was caught turning over a portion of a traffic accident victim’s remains to Cambria Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Vincent Salerno for use in training Salerno’s cadaver dog. Salerno, who like Jackman responded to the April 13 accident in an official capacity, pleaded guilty to the same charge. By law, the accident victim’s remains were supposed to go to a medical examiner.
In Niagara County, four coroners are elected to examine, identify and arrange transportation of bodies when there’s been a death that’s violent, suspicious or unattended. County coroners do not perform autopsies; when these are needed, the county pays the Erie County Medical Examiner’s office.
According to Wojtaszek, natural questions about the system include: Are four coroners too many? Would one elected coroner with a “support staff” provide better service? Would replacement by an appointed medical examiner — a physician trained in forensic pathology — be better still? The reform panel could take up these big questions or look at measures to improve the existing system.
The level of training that elected coroners receive is one area worth looking into, CS&S vice chairman David Godfrey, Wilson/Cambria legislator, said; presently, training appears to be voluntary and involves the office holder getting coaching from area fire/rescue personnel.
“There needs to be some accountability, transparency, some protocols in place, to avoid situations like this (the Jackman incident) in the future,” Wojtaszek said.
The 4th District coroner’s vacancy is to be advertised and candidates screened by the hiring/reform panel. The panel will recommend one candidate for temporary appointment by the legislature. It’s expected the office will go to election this fall, with the winner completing Jackman’s term, which ends in 2015. Coroners’ pay is about $17,000 a year.
In other legislative business Tuesday, Chairman Ross appointed a Medicaid Fraud Specialist hiring committee to recommend a replacement for newly resigned specialist Robert Restaino, who stepped down this month to run for a state Assembly seat.
The hiring committee is composed of legislators Wojtaszek, Jason Zona of Niagara Falls, Anthony Nemi and Richard Updegrove of Lockport, and Social Services Commissioner Anthony Restaino.
According to the county job posting, a Medicaid fraud specialist ferrets out Medicaid provider fraud and recovers fraudulent payments from contractors. Qualified candidates are experienced attorneys. The post pays a minimum $70,000 salary. Resumes are due to the hiring committee by May 7.