Is the Franklin County coroner in violation of an Idaho state law meant to ensure fair competition in the funeral industry?
The owner of a new mortuary in Preston says so and cites an Idaho statute to back it up. But the current coroner — who runs a competing funeral home — takes issue with the statute, and public officials from Boise to Preston have been reluctant to weigh in.
According to a section of the Idaho code dealing with county coroners, no funeral home can provide mortuary services for a deceased individual if anyone connected to the business also acts as a coroner in that case. The one exception is if there is only one funeral home in a given county.
Until two years ago, Franklin County was served for decades by a single mortuary, Webb Funeral Home, and its longtime director, Doug Webb, doubled as the coroner. More recently, the county office has been held by Webb’s son-in-law, Ron Smellie, who has a large role in the operation.
Smellie was elected in 2014 and again in 2018, when Webb Funeral Home was still the sole provider of mortician services in the county. But not long after his reelection, a competing mortician set up shop and wasted little time informing local officials about the Idaho statute and complaining Smellie was committing violations by not declining Webb services for individuals he handled as coroner.
His appeals so far have resulted in no action.
“I’m not trying to upset anybody, I just want the law to be followed,” said Franklin County Funeral Home owner Todd Goodsell, arguing situations like the one in Preston create a conflict of interest that gives morticians serving as coroners an advantage in generating business, since they are called by police to handle unattended deaths.
Goodsell himself stepped down as coroner in the Rupert, Idaho, area some years ago after a second funeral home opened in Minidoka County, where he was working as a mortician.
Contacted by The Herald Journal this week, Smellie said he has no intention of stepping down. And although he acknowledged he does double up as a coroner and mortician in some cases, he argued the law is unworkable and places an undue financial burden on small, cash-strapped counties.
“If there is a murder investigation, the body can’t leave the custody of the coroner because evidence could be tampered with. So if the coroner in a small rural county is not a mortician, then the counties would have to go build rooms and buildings and cost the taxpayers money, lots of money,” Smellie said. “Rural counties don’t do very many of these calls, so that’s why 70% of the coroners in Idaho are associated with a funeral home, because we already have a building, a refrigeration unit and storage and rooms to do everything.”
Smellie said last year there were just six unattended deaths in Franklin County requiring a coroner response.
“If we had 50 or 100 cases a year, yeah, of course, that would be a whole different thing, but we don’t have hardly any, and a lot of ours leave the county anyway (for funeral services). It’s such a small thing,” he said.
Goodsell discounted the equipment and cost argument, noting anyone can legally run for election and serve as a coroner in Idaho, and in counties where a non-mortician holds the position, bodies of the deceased are assigned to competing funeral homes on a rotating basis — much like tow truck services contacted by the police following car accidents.
Goodsell said he relayed his concern about the statute violation to several local officials, including the county commissioners and county attorney serving at the time he opened, along with the current sheriff. All informed him they did not think the matter was in their jurisdiction.
“I don’t think anything has been addressed. I’m not really sure how it would even get started, because everything I have seen so far is that the town fathers, if you will, don’t want to address it. They see it as a non-issue, even though the law is being broken,” Goodsell said, suggesting this might have to do with a tight-knit power structure in the local community and government of which he is not a part.
Goodsell said if the matter is not addressed locally, he may contact the Idaho Attorney General’s Office. However, a Herald Journal inquiry to that office last week resulted in a referral to the Idaho Elections Division, which in turn referred the newspaper back the local level, specifically the Franklin County Clerk’s Office.
County Clerk Camille Larsen said the matter is not under her purview and that she only follows election regulations related to candidate eligibility factors such as age, residency status, filing fees and the like.
Larsen referred the newspaper to Franklin County Attorney Vic Pierson, who did not return an email or phone calls on Thursday and Friday. A phone call and email to Franklin County Commission Chair Boyd Burbank also went unreturned.
Smellie said the county’s chief law enforcement authorities support his side in the matter.
“Our sheriff and our prosecuting attorney see it the way that everybody else does — that it (the law as it stands) doesn’t make any sense and shouldn’t be applicable for small counties,” he said.
Adding weight to this position, Smellie argued, is the fact that the Idaho State Association of County Coroners is working to have the law changed.
Goodsell countered that “the law is the law,” and as long as the mortuary statute is on the books, it must be enforced. The entry in the Idaho code book related to coroner-morticians notes any person violating the statute is guilty of a misdemeanor.
Smellie said he’s not sure whether he will seek reelection when his term expires next year. Asked if he’d have any problem with his business competitor filing as a candidate, he responded, “Absolutely not. Bring it on.”
The Franklin County coroner position pays $200 a month, Smellie said.