Incumbent Republican Dr. Howard Cooper of Wadsworth faces a challenge from Democrat Jennifer Banek of Green Oaks in the race for Lake County coroner.
Q: Why are you running for this office, whether for reelection or election for the first time? Is there a particular issue that motivates you? If so, what?
A: I am running for reelection after being elected in 2016. I originally ran to reform and professionalize an office that had fallen into ethical disrepute and was constantly at war with other law enforcement professionals, both of which are contrary to the public interest.
Lake County needed a medical professional to lead its administrative effort and program initiatives, as well as lead the efforts to professionalize the staff and have them boarded as Medicolegal Death Investigators. I want to continue my focus on education of students as to the hazards of drug use and abuse, especially opioids, suicide, and making good choices.
I also will continue to advocate for a new, state-of-the-art facility that will allow us to serve our citizens much better. I have made death prevention a priority. I have spent my time with students talking about the dangers of texting while driving, drinking and driving, drugs, suicide and making good choices.
Our children are our future, and we must do all we can to educate them. I speak to many social clubs, community service organizations, citizen police academies, explorer groups, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and to everyday citizens about these same issues.
Q: If you are an incumbent, describe your main contributions. Tell us of any important initiatives you’ve led. If you are a challenger, what would you bring to the office and what would your priority be?
A: I have ensured that our office treats families of the deceased with compassion and respect during their time of grief. There will never be a family who feels they were not treated properly. I have been to more death scenes than the previous four Coroners combined, day or night.
I make death notifications and work with families all over our county, at the worst time in their lives, to help them get through the process and provide the resources they need.
We have also developed a mass disaster plan and a pandemic plan for the county. Both plans have been utilized and the pandemic plan was crucial in our COVID response. In addition, we have become accredited by the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners.
Q: What special experience and professional qualifications does a person need to be an effective coroner? What experiences and qualifications do you possess that will provide a foundation for your success in office?
A: I believe that a Coroner needs to be compassionate, empathetic, and caring. I believe a forensic background is crucial. Being a doctor is an important asset, as well. The Coroner also needs to be able to handle large budgets, keeping in mind that we use taxpayer dollars and need to be fiscally responsible.
Q: Describe your position regarding the allocation of resources in the coroner’s office. Are personnel allocated as they should be? Are there capital expense or budgetary items that the office must address, and, if so, how do you propose to address them?
A: I have 30 years of experience in the forensics field and am a member of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT). I was also a member of the DMORT Weapons of Mass Destruction All Hazards Team for 16 years. With these teams, I performed identification of victims killed in the World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist attack and performed recovery, decontamination, and identification of victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
I have also had experience in working with my community and people throughout Lake County as a coach, local planning/zoning board member and as an active member of local, state and national professional societies. In addition, I have been the coroner for almost four years and have worked with families, law enforcement, firefighters, funeral directors, hospital staff, elected officials and many others to make our office successful.
There is no question that we are understaffed. The county’s consultants have agreed that we need three or four more full-time deputies. I am hopeful that the county board will see the needs that our office has based on our death statistics. It is very important to remember that we serve every single resident of Lake County, in addition to every person that travels through our county. We are ultimately responsible for every death in Lake County.
Q: Describe your position on transparency and public service in the coroner’s office and the ease of access to records by the public. If you believe improvements are needed, what are they and how would you go about achieving them?
A: We are a very transparent office. Reports are easily accessible to families, attorneys, the media, and others. We have actually increased our transparency by bringing back inquests for all officer-involved and in-custody deaths.
I am the first coroner to have an inquest in our county since 2006. This allows the public to rule on the cause and manner of death of a case. We do need to improve our facility, as well. We have really outgrown our physical space and we need a facility that can better serve our citizens and keep our employees safe.
We have been working with the county board and the capital improvement plan to build a new facility that we can utilize for the future.
Q: In light of the coronavirus pandemic, going forward, do you see needed staffing or equipment improvements/reductions/changes? Does/will how services are provided have to fundamentally and permanently change as a result? What do you suggest?
A: There is no doubt that we have had to change the way we do business. We needed to purchase a refrigerated trailer, which sits outside our office, and we test every single decedent for COVID, prior to bringing them in our building.
This will be a permanent change, being that COVID autopsies need to be completed with different safety precautions. We have had a tremendous increase in deaths in our county, so we certainly cannot reduce our head count.
Using CARES Act funding, we have secured some equipment that will definitely increase the safety of our employees in examining COVID positive decedents.