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Though Kitsap County voters elected Coroner Jeff Wallis in 2018 after he campaigned on doing away with the position of an elected coroner in favor of a medical examiner system, voters will have the final say on the plan this election.

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A ballot measure under consideration by voters, Proposition 1, would finalize the changes Wallis said have already been made.

Since taking office, Wallis has hired a forensic pathologist, Dr. Lindsey Harle, and contracted with Mason and Jefferson counties to have Kitsap provide pathologist services. He said the county is essentially using the new system now and all that’s left is to make the legal shift. If approved, Harle would lead the new office.

Wallis’ term ends in 2023. He said if the measure passes he would seek the job of office administrator. That job, like the medical examiner, would be hired and fired by county commissioners, who are elected.

Currently the elected coroner makes $129,000 a year. The office administrator would be paid about $90,000, Wallis said.

“We are already providing the service, we are already basically operating under (a medical examiner system),” Wallis said. “Paying an elected coroner and a doctor is kind of silly.”

The elected coroner is an office used by mid-sized counties to determine the cause and manner of suspicious or traumatic deaths.

Counties with smaller populations assign the duties to their prosecuting attorneys, and larger counties opt for a medical examiner system.

Supporters of Wallis’ plan see it as a cost-efficient way to meet the needs of Kitsap as the population grows. The office has an annual budget of about $1.5 million, and Wallis said approving the plan would not require an increase in the budget.

If approved, the department would become similar to other county departments that county commissioners oversee, and both the medical examiner and the office administrator would answer to commissioners.

Opponents are skeptical that it will save money, note that Kitsap’s population remains smaller than other counties when they have shifted away from the coroner system, and say it removes voters from having direct control over leadership in the office.

Pat Dawson, who ran for coroner in 2018 but lost in the primary, is credited with writing the “against” statement in the county voter’s guide. 

Dawson did not respond to an email listed in the county voter pamphlet, but in his statement, Dawson wrote that discarding the coroner system would mean voters would lose direct control of the office. Other counties that use the medical examiner system didn’t implement it without first having a population of at least 400,000, he wrote, and added that switching does not automatically mean the office would be better run.

“The check and balance system we now have in the coroner system works and should not be changed without good reason,” Dawson wrote. 

The population of Kitsap County is about 271,000, according to a U.S. Census estimate. In 2010 it was about 251,000.

This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Election 2021: Voters to make final call on medical examiner vs. coroner

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