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Commission, coroner inch closer on vehicle spat

Jun 3, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

Fremont County Commissioners and Coroner Ed McAuslan have made a decision about a much-debated vehicle identification requirement: They're going to talk about it some more.

"Will you allow 'Fremont County Coroner' on your vehicle?" commission chairman Doug Thompson asked McAuslan during their most recent discussion May 22.

"I will discuss it," the coroner said.

McAuslan and commissioner Dennis Christensen, who serves as the board's liaison to the vehicle maintenance department, will meet to discuss the matter further.

"We can get together to see what we can draft," McAuslan said.

While commissioners wanted McAuslan's vehicle labeled with the decals already purchased, Christensen indicated room to negotiate.

"I've seen the proposed graphics and they are a little -- I don't know what the term is -- graphic," he said. "I think there's no reason we can't come up with something that will satisfy both entities."

During their regular meeting May 22, commissioners met with McAuslan in the ongoing debate over the vehicle decals.

Commissioners sent a letter to McAuslan demanding he use decals that identified his vehicle as being with the coroner's department and property of the Fremont County government.

McAuslan maintained his argument that he is better qualified than the commission to decide what decals should be on his vehicle.

"As far as the operation of the coroner office ... this is better determined by the coroner and not the county commissioners," he said.

McAuslan said the two vehicles purchased for his office with authorization from the commission receive monthly payments from his department.

"Although they are county-owned vehicles, they are under the control of the coroner's office," he said.

Thompson questioned him about how the decals on his vehicles would prevent him from doing his duties. McAuslan said he can continue to do his job, but the decals would attract undue attention from bystanders.

"Potentially that could cause problems. I don't think we should bring in the possible jeopardy," McAuslan said. "The minute you see something out there that says coroner, you have attracted a lot more interest."

Thompson said that three or four fire engines with flashing lights would generate more interest at a scene.

"The gawkers are going to gawk whether you're there or not. ... I don't see it as a problem," he said.

McAuslan said his experience allows him to draw the conclusion.

"Unless you've been there, you will never understand it," he said, inviting the commission to travel with him to a death scene.

"How can you make an educated judgment if you don't know, you've never been there?" McAuslan asked.

Thompson said he has served as an emergency medical technician who has worked with coroners at death scenes.

"I've been there. I've seen it. I know what happens," he said.

McAuslan questioned the commission's legal authority for demanding the stickers placed on his vehicles.

"Are you next going to take that authority over our computers?" he asked. "Then is it going to go on from there to everything we have?"

Deputy county attorney Jodi Darrough cited a section of Wyoming statutes that authorizes a commission to "make such orders concerning the property of the county as they deem expedient."

Darrough said the same statute section allows commissioners to "represent the county, care for the county property and manage the business and concerns of the county in all cases where no provision is made by law."

Commission vice chairman Pat Hickerson said the board wants to ensure vehicles with flashing lights and sirens have markings identifying them.

"We don't want to have vehicles running out there with lights and sirens without knowing who they are and why," Hickerson said. "You can't do that in a private vehicle without some identification."

He questioned McAuslan's argument about maintaining a low profile at death scenes.

"If you're going to be incognito you shouldn't have a light and siren, because that says something right there," he said. "I think one way or another you can't split the baby and say you don't want to be noticeable."

McAuslan objected to classifying a sheriff's investigator's vehicle as undercover. The commission does not require those vehicles to carry an identification decal.

"What is the difference between a sheriff's investigative car and a coroner's investigative car?" he asked. "We are an investigative unit. ... We respond to the scene to investigate a death."

Darrough cited another section of law that defines "authorized emergency vehicles" as those "of fire departments, fire patrols, game and fish law enforcement personnel, livestock board law enforcement personnel, brand inspectors, law enforcement agencies, public and private ambulances, medical rescue units and extrication rescue units."

"Actually the coroner's vehicle is not included in the definition of any vehicle allowed a light and siren," she said.

Commissioner Keja Whiteman called for a compromise with a decal identifying the coroner's vehicle as Fremont County government property.

"The position was they want people driving by to say that's a property-of-Fremont-County vehicle," Whiteman said. "I'm not advocating for a size. I'm not advocating to paint the whole thing over the top."

McAuslan seemed agreeable to the proposal.

"I think I can say I would accept that in some way on the vehicle," he said. "I would be willing to discuss that, and if we can reach a suitable agreement, then yes I would."

Commissioner Travis Becker said the resolution could work.

"I'm OK with that. It doesn't have to be plastered around the whole vehicle. The purpose of this is to let every citizen know it's property of Fremont County," he said.

"Can we do it at the next oil change?" Becker asked.

"I said I was willing to discuss it and not do it," McAuslan said.

Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese said the government has policy in place concerning vehicles, computers and other issues.

"I spend a lot of time on this, and if we're not going to use it that's one less job I have to do," Freese said, holding the policy manual in her hand.

She also said the county's capital revolving fund purchased the coroner's vehicles, which the commission controls.

"If you wreck that (vehicle) tomorrow, there's no check coming to Fremont County Coroner. It's coming to Fremont County government," she said.

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