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Election 2016: One vote decides race for county coroner

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A single vote decided the outcome of this year’s race for Georgetown County Coroner. It was cast last week by a Circuit Court judge.

Two candidates who are challenging the incumbent coroner, Kenny Johnson, will not appear on the November ballot. Judge Ben Culbertson granted Johnson’s request for injunctions to keep state and local election officials from including Ryan Pitts, a Democrat, and Russ Graham, an independent, on the ballot.

Johnson filed suit last month saying Pitts and Graham failed to properly fill out an affidavit showing they are qualified to serve. State law sets seven qualifications of coroners based on education and experience. Pitts and Graham, who are funeral directors, relied on the one that requires that they “have completed a recognized forensic science degree or certification program within one year of being elected.”

Candidates have to file an affidavit with “information regarding the person’s enrollment in a recognized forensic science degree or certification program, if applicable.” Pitts and Graham left that blank on the form they filed with the county Board of Elections and Voter Registration. Graham’s attorney said at a hearing last week that since Graham had not yet enrolled, it was not applicable.

But Rob Tyson, attorney for Johnson, said the law is clear that the information must be provided at the time of the filing, “it’s not some time down the road.”

Culbertson agreed. A day after hearing arguments and saying he needed to do some research he granted the motion seeking temporary and permanent injunctions against putting Pitts and Graham on the ballot. He ordered Tyson to prepare a formal order.

Graham said this week he is weighing his options.

In the course of last week’s hearing, Culbertson raised questions about the impact of the law. There is only one course of certification recognized in the state; one that is selected by a Coroners Training Advisory Committee made up of at least five coroners. It is only available to people with 640 hours of experience in death investigation in a coroner’s or medical examiner’s office, according to an affidavit from Dennis Fowler, the current president of the state Association of Coroners.

That means only people who work for a coroner can become a coroner, Culbertson noted.

“I hear what you’re saying,” Tyson said. “It’s not our responsibility to say if that’s proper or not.”

“By this, even if they did fill it out properly, they can’t run,” Culbertson said, referring to the affidavit. “He’ll never be able to take the program.”

Culbertson started to comment on what that means “to the people of Georgetown,” but was interrupted by a flash of lightning outside the county judicial center that caused the lights to flicker and knocked out the microphones in the courtroom.

When the power was restored, Culbertson said he suspected 99 percent of coroners now serving were exempted from the certification requirement, adopted in 2010.

Tyson said that was an argument for another forum, although he said Johnson took the course even though he was exempt. “The statute’s straight-forward,” Tyson said. “The process makes sense.”

Bruce Miller, the attorney for Graham, argued that his client had enrolled in the program, offered through St. Louis University. The law requires that he complete the certification within a year of getting elected, Miller said.

“These are two separate programs,” Tyson said after reviewing an affidavit showing that Graham had registered.

“What’s the difference?” Culbertson asked. “They’re both called the same thing.”

Miller said that was a question that could only be answered through testimony, holding out the prospect for further proceedings. Assistant Attorney General Parkin Hunter, representing the state Election Commission, said he hoped the issue would be resolved by Aug. 15, the deadline for setting the November ballot.

Parkin and David Mills, attorney for the county election commission, said they didn’t have an opinion on whether Pitts and Graham were eligible. They said their clients are looking for guidance from the court.

There are similar suits over coroner candidates pending in Sumter and Laurens counties. A candidate for Saluda County coroner also received a letter from the incumbent challenging his qualifications, based on the certification class.

In 2012, Shawn Ragin was ruled ineligible after beating the incumbent in the Democratic primary election for coroner in Sumter County. He filed to run again this year after enrolling in the St. Louis University course, but the Democratic Party refused to certify him, according to court documents.

Dedric Bonds, chairman of the Georgetown County Democratic Party, told the court last week they certified Pitts to run because they believed the law requires him to be certified within a year of being elected. “That’s why I signed off on it,” he said. Neither he nor Pitts had an attorney.

“I was going to wait and see what the ruling is in this court” before enrolling, Pitts told the judge.

The 2012 decision in Sumter County was not appealed. Culbertson pointed out there is the potential this year for different interpretations of the statute in each of the pending cases. If that happens, someone could get elected who isn’t qualified or someone who is qualified could be kept from running. “I don’t know how you correct that problem,” Culbertson said.

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