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Process was not transparent

August 21, 2018 02:39 pm

To the editor:

On Wednesday evening, Aug. 8, the Committee Meeting Room at 401 State Street was filled with concerned and interested citizens, expecting to see a transparent and deliberative process by the Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee.

It was their job that evening to choose which candidate for the interim appointment of Coroner would be moved forward for a vote by the Full Board. The position became vacant when Dr. Andrea Coleman, who was overwhelmingly elected by Columbia County voters last November, largely because of her medical professional status, had to return unexpectedly, to her former position as forensic pathologist with the N Y City Medical Examiners Office.

Voters are aware of the increasingly more important job that the Coroner does, as the number who die unattended at home has risen. Here in Columbia County, we are an aging community, with many seniors who live and die alone, and many others, young and old, who die of opioid overdoses. When death occurs at home, First Responders, Law Enforcement and the Coroner are called to the scene. Each plays a different role in responding, investigating, and determining whether the cause of death was natural or suspicious.

Earlier on Wednesday, I listened to a radio call-in show as the two front runners, Bernadette Powis, a retired Registered Nurse, Family Nurse Practitioner and Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner with 35 years of experience, endorsed by the Columbia County Democratic Committee, and Carmen Martino, a retired law enforcement professional with 23 years of experience, endorsed by the Republican Committee, were interviewed on air.

I called in to ask both candidates whether they had ever met with or been interviewed by the Public Safety Committee, and both replied that had not occurred. An interview, which is standard procedure for any job applicant, would have at least added legitimacy to this process. In my opinion, the failure by our elected officials, to make this minimal effort, is astounding.

As soon as the meeting began, Supervisor Murell (R-Stockport) asked for a vote. Supervisor Cipkowski (D-Hillsdale) respectfully asked for discussion then stated his position that Ms. Powis was the best candidate for the job, based on her outstanding credentials and deep medical expertise, as well as the fact that most deaths in Columbia County are not the result of violent crime.

Some of the other committee members commented to say that both candidates looked good on paper, that Mr. Martino had been at the scene of many deaths, that they had worked with him or lived in the same town and knew his good character.

In the end, the Republican majority on both the committee and the full board, voted for Republican Carmen Martino, adding another member of law enforcement to the investigative team, rather than selecting a medical professional to create a truly interdisciplinary team. A Coroner who can speak knowledgably with a physician to discuss whether the death was preceded by circumstances such as illness or may be the result of drug use or complications, and can explain it clearly and compassionately to the family of the deceased, is what families deserve.

Fortunately, this was only an interim decision for a temporary appointment. The families of Columbia County will make the real decision on Election Day. Bernadette Powis will be on the ballot, and I’ll be voting for her.

It’s nice when the people have the power.

Stephanie Sussman