Some coroners looking for changes in law, term limits

Legislation requiring formal training for Colorado's coroners killed for second time

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Though most people know who they are, few want to meet them in a professional setting. It's not because they are seen as untrustworthy or unpleasant, in fact, they are some of the most trusted members of the community.

However, the fact remains that few people want to get to know their county coroner.

Bruce Zobel has served as the Moffat County Coroner for the last 26 years, but because of a measure passed by Colorado voters, that tenure will be coming to an end.

All elected county officials throughout the state are restricted to term limits of eight years, making these jobs less attractive to prospective applicants. The positions include the coroner, sheriff, clerk and recorder, treasurer and assessor.

"As long as it remains like this, it is going to become increasingly difficult to find people who want to fill these positions," Zobel said. "I have been here for 26 years, and really don't want to stop doing it now, but it looks as if I am going to have to."

Zobel makes $17,000 a year for his elected service, which requires him to be on call 24 hours-a-day, 365 days a year.

"I figured out I make about $2 an hour," he said.

Though many think of most coroners as medical doctors, in Colorado, that is often not true.

"There are a number of coroners from a number of different fields," Zobel said. "Of course, there are a number of coroners who are doctors, there are also a good number who are morticians and lay people as well. Truthfully, the lay people do just as good of job as everyone else."

In Colorado, most coroners are responsible for determining the cause of death, for transferring a body from the scene to the funeral home or hospital and deciding whether an autopsy is called for.

"Most people associate us with the forensic pathologists who do the autopsies," Zobel said. "Here in Moffat County, much like many of the smaller communities in Colorado, we will take the body to a larger city, like Grand Junction or Denver, where the autopsy is performed. We are responsible for staying with the body and making sure that it is accounted for at all times."

For coroners to stay current, Zobel thinks it's important to stay up-to-date on the most new methods.

"We are starting to move in the right direction with the formation of the Colorado Coroners Association Training Seminar, which started 12 years ago," he said. "I think it's important that coroners throughout the state be educated so that they can do their job effectively. As it stands now, we are having to self-police our coroners."

Zobel, who works full-time as a mortician at Grant Mortuary, has two deputies to assist him. Owen Grant and John Ponikvar both serve as deputy coroners, filling in when Zobel is out-of-town or on vacation. They also alternate attending seminars with Zobel to learn the new methods associated with their part-time positions.

"It's a job that most people would not like to do," Ponikvar said. "In a community such as this you tend to know everyone, so when there's a death it often hits close to home.

"If there is a positive out of that, though, I hope that it is somewhat comforting that they know us, and it is not a stranger coming to their door."

Ponikvar also agrees with Zobel on the issue of eliminating term limits, a measure that has already been passed in Grand, Rio Blanco and Routt Counties.

"It is going to be tough to find someone that wants to do the job," he said. "It's not like the pay is that great for what you have to do, so it may create some problems."

"The term limit issue is something that we should definitely look into," County Commissioner Les Hampton said. "In honesty, it is something that is not out on the table right now, but it should be something that we should include on the ballot, and let the voters of Moffat County decide on."

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