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August 29, 2015

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Answers: Clark County:

Question for commissioners: Who should oversee inquest in police shootings?

Changes needed to get the coroner’s inquest system up and running appear so simple to some but so very difficult to others.

County commissioners changed the system this year, hoping to make it fairer to the families of people shot and killed by police.

They created an ombudsman position to represent families during an inquest. They also eliminated the announcement of a “verdict” at the end of the inquest, making it a strictly fact-finding process.

But the new system has never been tried because of lawsuits filed by the police union.

One of those lawsuits was resolved when the state Supreme Court said the system was legal except for a clause saying a justice of the peace must oversee it. Designate a different overseer, like a hearing master, the court said, and the new inquest is fine.

County commissioners will discuss that idea again Tuesday.

But didn’t the police union say its members wouldn’t take part in it even if a hearing master was in charge?

It did. There’s a feeling that police might be jeopardizing themselves by participating, especially if the family later sues them.

If the officer doesn’t testify, does that make the inquest meaningless?

Not according to Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani.

“Cops don’t have to be there,” she said. “They don’t want to be, and we don’t need them to be.”

Giunchigliani said notes from the department’s investigation, along with testimony from other witnesses and other officers, would suffice.

“This is about keeping face with the community,” she said. “These families have no access to any information, and the inquest is the only public venue to let them and the public know what happened. This is a way to give those families some closure.”

Some of her colleagues have said they want to wait until the resolution of another lawsuit, this one in federal court, before considering a change in oversight or otherwise tweaking the new system.

•••

Commissioners might disband all or part of a hospital advisory board established a few years ago when the commission felt a separate board of medical professionals could avoid politics and do a better job of making contractual and other decisions for University Medical Center.

On Tuesday, however, commissioners will talk about dissolving that board, which one commissioner said “isn’t working like we thought it would.”

To replace the board, some commissioners want legislative approval to form a separate board to oversee hospital operations, something done in public hospitals throughout the country. UMC administrators say it will allow them to meet behind closed doors, preventing private hospitals from stealing or pre-empting UMC’s plans.

What are the chances the Legislature would allow that?

“Dead on arrival” is how Commissioner Tom Collins puts it. Since county commissioners aren’t unanimous about that idea, he added, state lawmakers won’t bother with it.

“They have other problems to solve,” he said.

He and Giunchigliani do not support creating the board.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, on the other hand, said UMC has hired formidable lobbyists, so he isn’t as pessimistic as Collins.

If the county disbands the advisory board and the Legislature doesn’t let it create a new board, then what?

Then, hospital oversight falls back into the lap of county commissioners. Giunchigliani sees that as a good thing. She said it would make commissioners focus on improving UMC’s finances by, among other things, considering the creation of a hospital taxing district.

A taxing district would create a zone over a wide swath of the county, potentially collecting taxes not only from unincorporated Clark County taxpayers but from taxpayers in Las Vegas, Henderson and other municipalities. Would voter-conscious commissioners try that?

More of them have voiced support for the idea because only county taxpayers fund the hospital, even though people from other communities use it. Collins, however, said he wanted to see whether the Legislature changes a tax-distribution formula next year. If that doesn’t happen in a way that benefits the county — by providing more tax dollars — he said it might be time for commissioners to push for a hospital taxing district.

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