Meeting between coroner and Prowers County Board of Commissioners June 4, 2024 gets heated

A hastily-scheduled special meeting on June 4, 2024 between the Prowers County Commissioners and Prowers County Coroner Tommy Dunagan quickly became heated.  Chairman of the Commissioners, Ron Cook, opened the meeting and thanked the other 2 commissioners for attending.  He opened the meeting by addressing Dunagan, asking him if he remembered their previous conversation from over a week prior, during which Dunagan told Cook about concerns he had that he already “had his hours in”, didn’t have enough hours to work the following weekend, had low staffing and was going to put it on the backs of the commissioners to take care of the coroner calls.  Dunagan answered that yes, he recalled the conversation.  Cook then said that since the weekend in question was Memorial Day weekend, the commissioners wouldn’t have time to set up a meeting before then and that since all commissioners would be out of town the following week at the CCI conference, he asked Dunagan to plan to be at the next regular meeting on June 11.  Again, Dunagan confirmed this.

Cook received a call from Dunagan on Saturday, June 1.  There had been a death south of Holly and in the call, Dunagan told Cook that he again was “out of hours” and was not going to respond to the scene.  When asked by Cook if there was a deputy who could cover for him, Dunagan said there was not.  Cook asked him “don’t you have 5 deputies sworn in?  You told me you only had one deputy that can cover investigations when you aren’t available.”  Dungan replied “No, I didn’t say that.”   Cook rephrased the question, asking if Dunagan told him there was nobody available to take call for that weekend and he replied “yes”.  He also confirmed that when Cook asked him if there were any other local coroners from nearby counties who could step in that he had replied “no”.

Cook went on to tell Dunagan “so that really put us in a spot because I can’t touch coroner calls”.  Cook then made calls to Rose Pugliese, the county’s legal counsel, as well as to the Prowers County Sheriff, who also is not allowed by law to act as coroner.  He said “so there is an ambulance on scene in Holly who can’t transport the body” and that while the Sheriff’s Department is responding, Dunagan gave the ambulance crew Cook’s phone number, while Dunagan interjected “all of your phone numbers”, referring to the three commissioners.  Cook said “Well I was the one they contacted.  It is very unfortunate that we were put in that position.  You took an oath as coroner when you were elected to take care of any deaths in the county” and that if Dunagan was not able to perform the duty, he was responsible for having someone available to perform those duties for him, per the oath he took.  Cook then went on to tell Dunagan that he personally knew the person laying in the yard.  “It was very upsetting that this conversation had to go publicly.  I think there were ways to handle this more professionally” and that “now the family knows about it, the medical staff knows about it, the Sheriff’s Department knows about it and obviously the news has gone through our community and it’s a very sad situation” said Cook.  “Absolutely” replied Dunagan.

Cook then told the audience and the other commissioners that after that initial call and trying to find another solution, he called Dunagan back. During the call, Cook asked if Dunagan would please go to the scene as a favor, offering the June 4 special meeting as a bargaining tool, which Dunagan accepted. The exact time from the dispatch call to the coroner finally arriving on scene was not available at the time of the meeting.

When asked by fellow commissioner Tom Grasmick to clarify what was said in the phone call, Cook replied “He told me he was not going to attend.  He was not going to take care of it”. Dunagan said “that’s not what I said”.  Commissioner Wendy Buxton-Andrade asked him what he DID say and Dunagan said he had told Cook that it would have to wait until he “came back on shift”, possibly not until Sunday morning.  “So you were going to let a body lay there until the next day?” asked Grasmick.  “Of course I didn’t want that” replied Dunagan, adding that he didn’t want to have to leave a person there and had never had to do that before. He said that it had been over a year and a half that he’d been having discussions with the commissioners asking to be paid as a full-time coroner.  He claimed he’d been told previously that he couldn’t work more than 20 hours per week.  He added “there’s not much else I can do without being compensated” and “I don’t feel that beyond 20 hours I should have to take calls after that”.  Dunagan referenced legislation that he felt stated he should be full-time and that “that’s the reason I feel it’s appropriate for people to call you guys.  This was your decision because it’s solely on you to decide if I’m full time”.

There was a lengthy discussion for most of the remainder of the meeting regarding the legislation he mentioned.  Ms. Pugliese explained that the state statute allows the decision regarding a part-time versus full-time coroner position to be determined by the individual counties, based on the needs of that county.  The commissioners, during several meetings concerning the upcoming budget deadline, had determined that it was more cost-effective for Prowers County to add more money to the budget that could be used for additional deputy pay rather than change Dunagan’s position to a full-time one.  They also reminded Dunagan that they had increased the Coroner’s Office budget by $15,000 this year, to be used to replenish needed supplies.  The deadline to make changes to the budget was January 1, 2024 and salary changes cannot be made for two years (January 1, 2026) per law.  This law was repeated multiple times throughout the rest of the meeting, with Dunagan challenging the law repeatedly, despite how many times he was told that it was set and cannot be changed by the commissioners.  He said he didn’t feel that was correct and that he would be consulting with his lawyer.  There was also a long discussion about the 20 hours per week he kept referencing, being told repeatedly by both the commissioners and Ms. Pugliese that the state classifies salaried personnel as being either part-time or full-time, but doesn’t define specific hours for either classification.

Marge Campbell, a volunteer with Holly Ambulance who was in attendance, angrily told Dunagan that she didn’t feel he was upholding his campaign promises of “dignity, transparency or compassion” adding, “you kept an ambulance tied up, sir, because of this ridiculous notion of yours that you’re going to force the commissioners into paying you a full-time salary.  It was despicable to let that man lay there” and went on to say that if he ever ties up their ambulance crew again and a life-threatening emergency came in that he would be held personally responsible.

Citizen Cindy Vigil, also in attendance, questioned Dunagan on where he came up with the idea that he was only supposed to work 20 hours a week, saying she didn’t ever remember seeing that during the voting process.  Dunagan told her it was per a state statue of labor or maybe a federal one, both of which were disproved by Mark Westhoff, County Administer, and Ms. Vigil, who told Dunagan she had researched it before attending the meeting that day.  She said she was angry that he let a body lay there while arguing about his hours.  Dunagan replied that it was because he had brought the issue up to commissioners before without the result he wanted.  She told him it wasn’t an appropriate time to do that, saying “at that moment, you chose to dig your heels in and let a human body lay there in disrespect while you are deciding whether or not they are paying you enough”.

The meeting also concerned the fact that Dunagan had asked to have his personal attorney fees paid by the county, as he had previously filed a lawsuit against one of the commissioners. Ms. Pugliese explained that this is a personal issue, not a county one since he isn’t suing the entire board and that personal fees are just that and that the county is not obligated to pay them.  She explained that “most elected officials don’t have their own attorneys” and that there is no blank check for attorney fees, reminding him that she is available for legal counsel, as is the District Attorney.  Dunagan had used the county credit card in the amount of approximately $1,900 for these personal legal fees and does not feel he needs to repay them, a situation which may prompt further legal action by the commissioners.

Cook then mentioned other issues the commissioners have had with Dunagan not following proper procedures for the office.  One such instance was an older van that another county offered to donate to the Coroner’s Office to transport bodies.  The board had previously voted not to accept the donation into the county’s fleet of vehicles for several reasons, yet Dunagan did so without board approval. Grasmick stated that the vehicle was in bad shape and needed a lot of work, part of why they didn’t vote to accept it. Dunagan had used the county credit card for purchases related to the vehicle, which they felt he was liable for since they had not been approved, which Dunagan also disagreed with.

Ms. Vigil then spoke again, and asked Dunagan “Tommy, with all due respect, do you want to continue to be coroner?  Because if you have this many issues with the job and your salary, maybe as voters in this community, we need to look at it and maybe this isn’t the job you should have”.

Ms. Campbell also spoke again and told Dunagan that “I have the perfect way to end this whole problem. Maybe it’s time the public does know all of these things and it’s probably time to let the public determine.  There’s such a thing as a recall”.

Cook, at this time, felt things were getting off topic and said he wanted to end the meeting.  He told Dunagan to have his attorney meet with Pugliese and that he didn’t want the meeting go any further or to go into personal attacks.  Dunagan interrupted, stating that he felt there was no legal recourse for his office.  Pugliese countered, stating that she was available for legal counsel and that, again, the commissioners had no obligation to provide private legal counsel.  Cook then motioned to adjourn the meeting.

As an addendum, Mr. Dunagan had invited several individuals, as well as SECO News from LaJunta to attend the meeting.  Anyone wishing to view the meeting in its entirety can visit SECO News’ Facebook page or their YouTube channel to view the video they took.  The entire video is also shared on our Facebook page.

By Barbara Crimond  

Filed Under: CountyElectionsFeaturedLaw EnforcementPublic Safety


About the Author: