Eagle County coroner’s position contested for first time in 12 years
The Aspen Times
Candidates aren’t always dying to get into the coroner’s race in Eagle County, but the post is contested this year for the first time since 2002.
Incumbent Kara Bettis, a Democrat, is facing a challenge from Sue Franciose, a Republican. Both candidates live in the Eagle Valley, but they oversee deaths in the Eagle County portion of the Roaring Fork Valley, as well. That includes El Jebel, Willits, part of Missouri Heights and most of Basalt.
The election is Nov. 4.
Bettis was a deputy coroner for four years when the coroner in office in 2002 had to step down because of term limits. Voters have since abolished term limits for the coroner. Bettis won the 2002 election against another deputy coroner and then ran unopposed in 2006 and 2010.
Bettis is touting her experience and hands-on style of running the office. She has six deputies, and the office is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week to ensure that response times to a death scene don’t exceed an hour, according to her website. Bettis said she is involved in one way or another with every call her office makes — be it directly responding and often investigating a death or checking the report filed by a deputy.
She said she has become a professional at death investigations and has helped on some drastically varied cases — from airplane crashes to bones found at a Vail construction site this summer to a double homicide in El Jebel in July.
As of February, her office had handled about 700 deaths over nearly 12 years.
It takes a special kind of person to handle the tragedy and grief that often accompany deaths. The toughest for her involve children and people she knows.
“It’s all about balance. When I get on a scene, I focus on what happened there,” Bettis said.
Franciose vows changes
Franciose’s campaign hinges on changes that she said she will make to operate the office better. She stresses that she isn’t trying to “bash” Bettis, but as the challenger she must point out her differences from the incumbent.
“I know what she’s done. I know what I can do,” Franciose said.
Franciose has worked in the medical field all her adult life and she was a deputy coroner for 11/2 years in Bettis’ administration until personal obligations required her to resign, she said.
Franciose said that she would do a better job as coroner of promoting tissue donations by people who die. There needs to be a greater effort to alert families whose loved ones have died outside hospitals that they can donate skin, bones, heart valves, corneas and other vital tissue, she said. Franciose claimed Bettis doesn’t promote tissue donations in ways such as alerting Donor Alliance, a business with offices in Denver and Grand Junction that harvests tissue.
Bettis said tissue donation isn’t as simple as Franciose suggests. When a person dies in a hospital, there is no problem with donations because the precise time of death is known. But in traumatic or unattended deaths, it isn’t always possible to determine the time of death and then make arrangement for tissue harvesting, which must be done within 24 hours after a death, Bettis said.
Bettis said she has worked with families numerous times on tissue donations. However, she said she doesn’t consider it her role to contact Donor Alliance to let it know, “I’ve got a body.”
Candidates debate response RATE
Another difference that has emerged during the campaign is direct responses to death scenes. Franciose said she used Bettis’ own statistics from her website to determine that she has responded to 13 to 19 percent of the deaths in Eagle County during her tenure. Franciose said she had to use a range because Bettis switched the ways she posted statistics once she realized Franciose was tracking them.
“Twenty percent doesn’t seem to be a lot,” Franciose said.
When pressed to estimate how often she would respond, Franciose said, “I would hope at least 25 to 30 percent.” She said she would be notified of every call regardless of whether she is on call.
Bettis said she doesn’t know how Franciose arrived at her assessment of Bettis’ response rate.
“I do go to more bodies than she’s trying to claim,” Bettis said.
She estimated that between 2009 and 2013, she handled 28 percent of the calls, occasionally going with a deputy who is on call. Bettis said she goes out on more calls than any of her deputies and looks over every report they file.
“I don’t think she truly understands it,” Bettis said of Franciose.
She noted the position is full time for her. The deputies are volunteers, and in all cases except one, they get paid based on the number of responses.
Salary is $44,500
The pay for the position is $44,500 annually. It is set by the state Legislature and won’t be adjusted in 2015, according to Bettis.
Bettis said she wants to keep the post because she thinks she does a good job and is helpful to the families of the deceased.
“What appealed to me and still does is working with the families,” she said.
Franciose said she sees opportunities to expand the public service of the Coroner’s Office. One example would be talking to high school kids about the dangers of texting and driving as well as drinking and driving. Kids might shrug off warnings from law officials, she said, but the delivery from a coroner, who sees death all the time, might capture their attention.
“The coroner’s role can be so much more,” Franciose said.
For more information on Franciose’s background and qualifications, visit http://www.suefranciose.com.
For more on Bettis’ background and qualifications, visit http://www.electkara.com.
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