Former Ada County coroner says GOP candidate would be ‘disastrous’

Democrat Dotti Owens and Republican Nikole “Niki” O’Neal are running for Ada County coroner. Two former coroners, Erwin Sonnenberg and Mike Johnson, endorsed Owens on Monday.
Democrat Dotti Owens and Republican Nikole “Niki” O’Neal are running for Ada County coroner. Two former coroners, Erwin Sonnenberg and Mike Johnson, endorsed Owens on Monday. Kate Talerico

A week before the election, two Republican former Ada County coroners have endorsed the incumbent Democrat, Dotti Owens, for a second term.

Former Coroners Erwin Sonnenberg and Mike Johnson say Owens’ opponent, Republican Nikole “Niki” O’Neal, lacks the experience for the job.

The coroner’s office examines the bodies of people killed in crimes and determines the cause of death. The role requires both medical and legal experience, but O’Neal has never worked in a coroner’s office or performed an autopsy, Sonnenberg said in a telephone interview.

“With Niki we’re looking at a lot of issues that would come up that would be disastrous,” he said.

O’Neal countered that her training in medical sciences is an asset. O’Neal is a student pursuing her master’s degree in medical laboratory sciences from Idaho State University and has trained in the preparation of tissue for microscopic analysis.

“The expertise required in the medical side by far outweighs the law enforcement side,” she told The Statesman in a phone interview Monday.

Sonnenberg, who was coroner from 1985 through 2014, questioned whether the pathologists in the office, who hold medical degrees, would respect a boss with few qualifications or certifications.

“You think that everyone wants to have a boss that knows less than they do?” he said.

Said Johnson, who was coroner from 1979 through 1984: “Ada County can’t afford to have somebody that’s never been in the field.”

The last three coroners all worked in the coroner’s office before they were elected. Owens, elected in 2014 to a four-year term, worked as a forensic supervisor and a medico-legal death investigator.

Sonnenberg and Owens said the Ada County coroner’s job is important to the entire state. The office contracts with 33 surrounding counties to perform autopsy and toxicology services, Owens said.

“We’re operating as a regional facility. These coroners have 24-hour access to me,” she said in a phone interview.

O’Neal has not worked for a coroner but said her academic training has covered “the basics” of administrative jobs within a coroner’s office.

“My job will also be to make sure that I have somebody in my staff that is a senior chief deputy,” O’Neal said. “I’ll have the medical side under my field, and chief deputy is someone that oversees the legal side. I’m very resourceful, though I may not have the experience of being at every death scene.”

Owens’ office recently came under the scrutiny of Sharon Ullman, a Republican candidate for Ada County commissioner who has donated to O’Neal’s campaign. Ullman filed records requests for autopsy reports conducted by the office, which she said she would use to evaluate whether the growth in the coroner’s budget in the last three years was warranted. Owens denied those requests.

Sonnenberg said the budget increases are “very reasonable” given the growth in Ada County.

Why is the coroner an elected position?

The coroner is unlike most elected officials. “It’s not partisan: a death investigation is a death investigation,” Sonnenberg said. But the elections themselves are partisan. And coroners are not required to have medical degrees.

So why is the coroner, tasked not with policy but with pronouncing people dead, an elected position?

The role of the coroner in America has British roots. Coroners centuries ago identified the dead so the government could collect taxes, National Public Radio reported as part of a yearlong investigation into the American coroner system.

The National Academy of Sciences advised in the 1920s that jurisdictions abandon the coroner system for appointed medical examiners. But fewer than half of states have made the switch.

Johnson believes the job should remain elected. “You want the coroner to be an elected position, because that gives him the full autonomy to make decisions without recourse of being fired for something,” he said.

Kate Talerico: ktalerico@idahostatesman.com; 208-377-6292; @k_talerico
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