Crawford commission prepares for lawsuit with coroner

mstucka@macon.comMarch 6, 2014 

Crawford County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to hire an attorney for Coroner Allen O’Neal, who plans to sue them.

A long-running fight over the coroner job’s perks and requirements, including questions of whether the coroner was just joking about wanting a Cadillac, is likely to soon lead to a lawsuit, O’Neal said Wednesday.

“I’ve done everything I can do. I’ve asked them, and I’ve begged them,” said O’Neal, who has been the county’s coroner for about 24 years.

O’Neal said the biggest part of his fight is over the use of a car. He’s got two major reasons not to use his own personal vehicle to get to a scene, he said. The immediate problem is his insurance might not cover an accident because the insurance company considers his car to be an emergency vehicle at that point. The other is more personal.

“I don’t know what all I come in contact with when I do my job, and I’m carrying that back to my personal vehicle that my grandchildren ride in,” he said.

On Thursday, Crawford County commissioners called a meeting for 4 p.m. Wednesday to discuss threatened litigation and appoint an independent counsel. The official county attorney represents both the commission and the coroner, so he has a conflict of interest in representing either side in litigation.

Commission Chairman Dean Fripp said O’Neal changes his standards.

“It’s nothing that we’ve offered him that’s been good enough. He said laughingly the other day he wanted a Caddy,” Fripp said.

O’Neal said the talk of a Cadillac was a joke, after he was interrupted three times: “I told them if they wouldn’t listen to me and tell them what I needed, to just get me a Cadillac.”

He said his standards are lower, and he pictures something like a used investigator’s car, big enough to carry his work gear and clean enough for the purpose.

“Anything I can use to the point that if I have a distraught loved one on the side of the road I can set them down in the vehicle and console them and not get them dirty,” he said.

But the fight has also covered other expenses, such as whether the county has offered O’Neal sufficient office space, should be paying for a fax line at his house and needs to give him a better computer.

A 2001 state law says Crawford County needs to pay “the necessary operating expenses of the coroner’s office ... as may be reasonably required” to do the job. A judge may soon determine what that means. O’Neal and the county commissioners have different views.

“He’s asked for an office. He’s asked for a lot of different things that we’ve given him,” Fripp said. “Nothing that we’ve done has been good enough. One of the commissioners, Paul Chapman, said the other night that trying to satisfy him was like trying to hit a moving target. I don’t know anything else other than to let him do what he’s got to do.”

O’Neal said commissioners are nitpicking in their fight with him but hurting other people.

“What’s going on is not hurting me personally,” he said. “It’s hurting the folks that have got loved ones that have passed away. And that’s my whole concern. That’s the reason I do the job that I do.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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