County leaders question success claims after coroner’s office director resigns

The director of operations at the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office and crime lab resigned after eight months, submitting a resignation letter on Aug. 16 that county officials said overstated his accomplishments.

Erik Blaine will not be replaced at this time, said Dr. Kent Harshbarger, the elected Republican coroner who also oversees the Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab.

Blaine, 38, previously served as a Montgomery County Common Pleas Court judge. He began the coroner’s office job on Jan. 14 and was paid $119,995 annually.

“Thank you for the opportunity to turn the failing models around and to lead the agencies toward a more secure immediate future,” Blaine wrote in his letter.

A Republican, he was appointed in 2017 by then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich to replace Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Michael Tucker, who was elected to Ohio’s Second District Court of Appeals. Blaine lost the judge seat in November 2018 to Democrat Gerald Parker.

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Blaine is an attorney who previously served as an acting magistrate judge and special assistant city prosecutor for the city of Vandalia, according to his LinkedIn resume.

He also is one of 16 people the Dayton Foundation appointed last week to oversee disbursement of the Dayton Oregon District Tragedy Fund, which has collected about $1.3 million to assist victims and families of victims killed or injured in the Aug. 4 mass shooting in Dayton.

Blaine told the Dayton Daily News that he resigned from the county to return to practicing law and he would not respond directly when asked if Harshbarger asked for his resignation.

“I was not fired,” Blaine said. “It was one of those things where we continued to work together to find what the agency needed and, as I said in my letter there, my resignation or my departure from the position was to return back to my profession.”

He believes he did a good job.

“When someone comes from the outside into an agency like this, especially in a leadership role, it’s likely to encounter some friction as new work relationships really are established,” Blaine said. “I wouldn’t call it anything more than growing pains.”

Harshbarger declined to comment on what prompted Blaine’s resignation, but wished him the best as he returns to the practice of law.

Harshbarger said Blaine agreed to be available until Sept. 30 to assist if needed. Going forward, Harshbarger said he will share the operations director duties with other staff and will determine whether a director is needed after seeing how that works out. The role was held for decades by Ken Betz, who retired in 2017 and was replaced by Chris Williams, now the assistant county administrator for business services.

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Blaine’s resignation letter includes claims about his accomplishments that county officials said are not accurate.

When told of the county’s response to statements in his letter, Blaine said, “I don’t know why they’re saying that.”

Blaine said in the letter that he had added new member agencies to the crime lab and “secured the County’s agreement to change the funding model,” and to provide funding for three years to the lab.

The local lab is funded through member-agency fees, as well as Montgomery County, state and federal funds. It has seen a steady loss of member agencies and jurisdictions that have shifted work to the state’s crime lab in recent years.

This year the county provided a $624,615 subsidy to the lab’s $3.5 million budget. The separate coroner’s office budget is $6.5 million.

“The crime lab has always been supported financially by the county commissioners and subsidized by general fund revenues. Each budget cycle, we evaluate the cost model to ensure we are providing the most efficient and effective services to our customers,” said Brianna Wooten, director of communications for the county.

Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert said the county remains committed to the lab as a “valuable tool for law enforcement and a regional asset.” But there is no new agreement on a changed funding model or three years of funding, Wooten said.

Harshbarger said the loss of member jurisdictions has hurt the lab, forcing cutbacks and fee increases to remaining members. But Harshbarger said he is encouraged by Colbert’s strong support for the lab as Harshbarger seeks a “more sustainable method to continue to serve the public.”

RELATED: Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab’s future at risk

Blaine’s letter said he had “successfully added new member agencies” but in an interview last week Blaine said he couldn’t remember which new agencies were added, except that Middletown signed an agreement for the lab to do drug testing. Harshbarger said the lab gained no new member agencies during Blaine’s tenure but that the Middletown Police Department, which was already using the lab on a pay-as-you-go basis, was switched to member pricing so it could save money on chemistry tests.

Blaine also said he had secured funding for an expensive X-ray machine, but the county spokeswoman and Harshbarger both said that is not the case.

Blaine’s letter says he had “begun the discussion to have an addition built onto the existing building to be funded by the anticipated jail bonds.” Wooten said the Jail Facility Master Plan is in the early stages and there has been no discussion about using jail bonds to add on to the downtown Dayton building that houses the coroner’s office and crime lab near the county jail.

RELATED: Montgomery County seeking proposals for jail expansion

Harshbarger said Blaine’s resignation letter claims should have been presented as projects he was working on, rather than completed, and some may eventually come to fruition.

“I did not take the document to be illustrating absolute fact. I took it, and still take it, as an outline more of Erik’s real progress on specific assigned objectives, and, while the ‘end zone spike’ may not be ‘fact check’ accurate, important ground work was done,” Harshbarger said. “In general, to me, his letter outlines objectives he was tasked with and addresses what should have been reflected more as meaningful effort and progress not necessarily items finalized.”

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