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County dispute over vehicle decals continues
County Commissioner Pat Hickerson suggested it might be time for the board to drop the dispute with McAuslan about vehicle identification. File photo

County dispute over vehicle decals continues

May 22, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

Fremont County commissioners discussed the sticky situation of requiring Coroner Ed McAuslan to place decals on his department's vehicles during their meeting May 15 but declined to bring it up again Tuesday.

McAuslan again voiced his opposition to decals that would identify his vehicle as the coroner's and the property of Fremont County government.

"I think we've spent enough time on this issue. I think we should get on with our jobs," McAuslan told commissioners last week.

His cited his experience in the coroner's department -- he started in 1975 and took office in 1999 -- as making him "much more qualified" than commissioners to make decisions about his vehicles.

"I believe it is in the best interest of my office not to have high-visibility stickers, and that's my decision," McAuslan said.

After the discussion with McAuslan ended, commissioners talked among themselves. They sent the coroner a letter dated containing their demands April 17.

"How far do we want to go to enforce that?" asked commission vice chairman Pat Hickerson, questioning if the board wants to drop the issue.

"I'm OK with that if that's what the board wants to do."

In light of commission chairman Doug Thompson's absence, discussion about possible action by the board was delayed until this week's meeting Tuesday, but commissioners opted not to bring it up again for the time being.

"I think it needs to be identified as 'Fremont County Coroner,'" commissioner Dennis Christensen said. "Whatever the board wants is fine with me," but Christensen said he prefers the coroner identification on the vehicle.

The debate over the decals arose in January when McAuslan talked about getting flashing emergency lights and sirens on his vehicles.

"I don't understand the need for the emergency lights and not the graphics," Christensen said. "With the emergency lights, it's my personal opinion it should be identified as a coroner vehicle no different from a sheriff's vehicle."

He added, "I don't think the coroner has a reason for them to be unmarked."

A clearly marked coroner vehicle can cause additional issues at an area, McAuslan said.

Although coroner's staff members wear hats and jackets identifying their department, McAuslan said vehicles will not have the graphics because of their visibility on the scene.

"They won't find out while we're there. They won't interfere with what we do," McAuslan said about the public's knowledge of his investigation.

"It's my thought that in the best interest of our staff, the less people that know at the time the safer the circumstance is going to be," he said.

The decision on the matter rests with him, McAuslan said.

"They are under the control of the Fremont County coroner, and it's my decision," he said.

In their letter to McAuslan, commissioners noted county policy that requires all of its vehicles "should be clearly marked as 'Property of Fremont County Government' on the sides of the vehicles and equipment. ... The only vehicles that are exempt from this Policy are those vehicles that are undercover.'"

Commissioners said they "expect the graphics to be placed on the vehicles at the earliest possible convenient time (next service, etc.)."

McAuslan said the county committee that authorizes equipment purchases approved the lights and sirens but not the decals, which have already been purchased.

The coroner also questioned the use of the word "should" instead of "shall" in the county policy.

"Should is not mandatory," McAuslan said.

"Wow, we're going to mince words," commissioner Travis Becker replied.

Earlier in the conversation, Becker asked McAuslan who owns the vehicles supplied to the coroner's department.

"There's no question about it, who owns the vehicles and who pays for the vehicles," McAuslan said, referring to the taxpayers.

His determination that coroner cars are emergency vehicles did not fly with the commission.

"You're not dealing with an emergency situation. The situation is already over," Becker said.

McAuslan invited the commissioners to come with him on a coroner job "and you can decide whether what I do or not is an emergency situation."

Until that happens, commissioners are not qualified to make a decision on the matter, McAuslan said. He also pointed out his vehicles have county government license plates on them.

"Do you think the average citizen knows this?" Becker asked him.

McAuslan said he hopes the public can recognize the license plate.

County Clerk Julie Freese said the county government license plates are uniform throughout the state.

"I think it's a good idea to identify what county they're coming from," she said.

Freese said the commission has full control over the vehicles within the capital revolving fund used for major equipment purchases within county government.

"The capital revolving fund is owned by the county commissioners," she said. "You do own the fund, you do own all of our vehicles, all of our equipment (under the fund)."

Becker said the coroner's actions could result in significant changes to his use of county vehicles.

"We are the ultimate authority here on the vehicles," he said.

"I'm of the mindset if we can't get it accomplished we don't provide county taxpayer vehicles. We go to the personal vehicles and pay mileage," Becker said.

"Realistically what you're suggesting makes absolutely no sense whatsoever," McAuslan said. "There's no way a personal vehicle would complete the task."

The coroner said he could find case law that would prevent the commission from taking his vehicles.

"You're probably right," Becker said, adding the commission could require McAuslan to check out a government pool car when he needs a vehicle.

"That's your choice," McAuslan said. "I will stand on my decision."

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