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Decals and gloves

Jan 31, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Resolving smaller disputes in county government can be useful for when bigger ones come along

It's easy to poke fun at the ongoing disagreement between the Fremont County Coroner and Fremont County Commission about whether the coroner's truck must carry a decal that identifies it as an official county vehicle -- and some people are doing just that. We have a letter to the editor in the hopper on the topic that we'll publish in a day or two.

On the surface, it does have an air of the absurd -- elected officials with high responsibilities arguing publicly for months about what is essentially a bumper sticker with a logo on it.

The specifics of the point being argued by the coroner, Ed McAuslan, are not trivial -- chiefly that showing up to a crime scene, accident scene or simply a suspicious scene in a vehicle emblazoned with "Coroner" can create or add to an inflammatory climate at that locale, perhaps interfering with an investigation or creating a disturbance of the peace. The arrival of a coroner's truck notifies the world that someone is dead, and that can cause problems before authorities are prepared to deal with them.

The commissioners say the county vehicle must be identified as such. It is an official vehicle whose purpose is not undercover police work, and county vehicles are supposed to carry the county insignia.

Commissioners say yes, the coroner says no. This situation has been in stalemate for months -- accompanied by an assortment of snickers, wisecracks and comments of exasperation from observers -- along with lots of newspaper headlines.

But there is a larger point here. In addition to the particulars, the case also has to do with the legitimate exercise of authority, the separation of powers, the division of responsibility, and the primacy of one elected entity over another.

The same could be said about a couple of other memorable quarrels between the commission and other county agencies. A spat over how much the Fremont County Attorney tipped his lunch waitress comes to mind, along with the more recent dust-up over a couple of pairs of leather gloves bought for county firefighters that the commission didn't want to pay for.

These disputes seem trivial to some, but they are useful in and of themselves. They help our leaders -- and the voters who elect them and pay for their services -- work out areas of authority, responsibility and precedent on a smaller scale. That, in turn, will prove beneficial if a dispute about who's in charge, and of what, crops up on a larger scale.

So, yes, let's argue about a decal on a fender or a pair of gloves now if we need to, so that if a dispute over a fleet of trucks, or a real estate purchase, or a big personnel or policy issue comes up, we may well have charted an appropriate course through the disputed waters already.

Better to argue -- and resolve -- the smaller conflicts now, even if it takes awhile. That way, when the bigger ones come up, we'll have a much better idea of how to proceed.

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