Can the coroner also be mayor?

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A question on some voters’ minds ahead of the April consolidated election may be whether Columbia mayoral candidate Bob Hill can serve in that role and his current one as county coroner. 

It is certainly a question Hill’s opponent, Columbia City Clerk Wes Hoeffken, has raised. 

“Recent activities within the City of Columbia have highlighted the importance of having a mayor who has no ties or interests to organizations outside the city,” Hoeffken told the Republic-Times. “I believe there is a distinct conflict of interest for any individual to serve as both the Monroe County coroner and the mayor of Columbia.”

Hill said he does not believe there is any problem with him holding both positions if he wins the April 6 contest.

“Prior to my decision to run for mayor of Columbia, I looked into the issue of whether the offices of county coroner and mayor would be incompatible,” Hill explained. “I found no such conflict in statute or case law. This issue was also researched with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office through their compatibility index with no conflict found.”

Hoeffken raises a reasonable question, but Hill is correct that it is impossible to definitively prove the offices are incompatible because there is no law or legal precedent relating directly to this matter. 

In other words, one can make the argument Hill could not serve in both jobs, but it is a difficult case to win. 

According to a 2013 legal brief from the Illinois Municipal League, elected municipal officials can hold elected office in another unit of local government if there is no contractual relationship between the municipalities. 

“When statutory or Constitutional authority does not exist, an incompatibility of office arises when the duties of each office are such that the holder of one cannot, in every instance, fully and faithfully discharge all the duties of the other,” the IML stated. “Once an incompatible office is accepted, the first office or position is automatically relinquished. An incompatibility of office can be determined by examining whether the vested interests of one office directly or indirectly affect the vested interests of the other office. If one office is subordinate to the other, an incompatibility exists.” 

Hoeffken’s argument is that a contractual relationship exists between Monroe County and Columbia. 

He provided information to the Republic-Times showing there have been at least four memorandums of understanding and one agreement between the two entities since 2019. That includes a roadway improvement agreement and a memo regarding the use of DigiTicket. 

“Incompatibility exists between two separate governmental unit positions if there is a contractual relationship between the two governmental units,” Hoeffken said. “The city currently has several contracts in place with Monroe County that create a contractual situation that prohibits a county official from holding office in the City of Columbia.” 

While the Columbia mayor does not work directly with the coroner’s office, the position does appoint the city’s police chief, whose department would work with that office as part of death investigations.

The issue is that there is no statute, attorney general opinion or legal precedent specifically regarding incompatibility of office between a county coroner and mayor. 

The Illinois Public Officer Prohibited Activities Act prohibits county board members, aldermen and village trustees from holding many other positions in local government, but it does not address county coroners or mayors at all. 

In the case of attorney general’s opinions, there have been dozens since the 1970s dealing with specific cases of incompatibility of office, but none have dealt specifically with someone wanting to serve as coroner and mayor. 

Additionally, the IML said those opinions are considered legally “persuasive,” but not binding. 

Finally, in terms of court cases, there have been several focused on this type of conflict of interest, but they may not apply in Hill’s situation.

One foundational case from 1997 called People v. Claar dealt with a someone serving as mayor and director of the Illinois Toll Highway Authority. That case set out some general principles for considering the matter like those described in this story, but no hard and fast rules. 

Likewise, a 2005 case called People v. Brown centered on someone who was  elected a member of a city council while serving on a park district board. The court said those offices were incompatible and laid out specific reasons for that ruling, but it also made clear that its ruling was case-specific. 

In the absence of any of those sources, it is possible to argue Hill could not serve as coroner and mayor, but there is nothing conclusive to say that is true.

“My campaign has, and will remain, focused on how I can best serve my hometown,” Hill said. “I would hope the citizens of Columbia will continue to support my campaign and will see this as nothing more than a last-ditch attempt by my opponent to distract from the real issues facing the city.” 

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