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Davison Co. to choose coroner in Tuesday's primary

The Davison County coroner race is dead ahead, and two Republican candidates are vying for local support. Longtime County Coroner George Bittner, who's held the position since 1981, faces off against Terry Rietveld in their first-ever head-to-hea...

Davison County coroner incumbent George Bittner, left, and challenger Terry Rietveld. (Courtesy photos)
Davison County coroner incumbent George Bittner, left, and challenger Terry Rietveld. (Courtesy photos)

The Davison County coroner race is dead ahead, and two Republican candidates are vying for local support.

Longtime County Coroner George Bittner, who's held the position since 1981, faces off against Terry Rietveld in their first-ever head-to-head matchup for the elected position. Bittner, a funeral director at Bittner Funeral Chapel, and Rietveld, a managing partner across town at the Will Funeral Chapel in Mitchell, will be the two candidates on the ballot for Davison County primary voters come Tuesday.

Bittner, 66, has been a funeral director in Mitchell since 1978 and earned the coroner's job three years later. Over the years, he's remained in the position by overcoming opponents, running for re-election with no challenger or even being re-appointed as coroner by the County Commission because no candidates campaigned for the job.

Although Bittner's squaring off with a challenger this year, he said his experience and reliability over three decades in the job make him the right choice.

"I think if there were problems out there, I think maybe there would have been a groundswell to get an opponent," Bittner said of all the election years he ran unopposed. "But I don't think there have been a lot of problems in the past."

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But the 49-year-old Rietveld wanted to give the voters a choice in 2016.

"I think the world of George, (but) if I were him at his age, I'd be full-time fishing," Rietveld said while taking some time out of a fishing trip for a phone interview with The Daily Republic.

The choice between the two candidates will be made solely by Republicans in Davison County, and Bittner's hoping the party will stick with him for another four years. Regardless of the voters' decision, Bittner said this year's campaign is raising awareness about what a county coroner does.

So what will Davison County residents be voting for when choosing between Rietveld and Bittner?

"The bottom line on the coroner is if the death takes place in the county, no matter where it is, people are interested," Bittner said. "But the main thing they want to know is however that person died, we've got to make sure nobody else dies like that. That's why we investigate it."

To Rietveld, a good county coroner is one who helps people through a "really difficult time in their life." And Bittner agreed, saying the coroner's primary responsibility to determine the manner of death - whether it's natural causes, an accident, homicide or suicide - helps provide the deceased's family members with answers.

"We also have a great responsibility to the family of the individuals who have died," Bittner said. "Quite often, this is a very sudden death, it's an unexpected death, and they're looking for answers as to how their family member died. And we try to provide that information to them."

Bittner, who said he's called upon about 30 to 50 times per year, said a coroner is typically called after both emergency medical technicians and law enforcement have arrived on a scene and a person has been declared dead. Once Bittner or one of his deputies arrives, they collaborate with law enforcement to determine the manner of death.

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Bittner said it's that collaborative relationship with law enforcement agencies and the medical examiner in Sioux Falls, who conducts autopsies at the request of county coroners, that Bittner feels makes him a good choice to remain Davison County's coroner.

While Bittner has experience, Rietveld is no rookie. Rietveld has been in the funeral business for about 30 years, and he's been a funeral director for about 25 years.

"This is all I've ever done since I was probably 19," Rietveld said.

Despite that experience, Bittner said it does not get any easier to be called upon to determine the manner of death when the deceased is someone he knows or caused by an accident.

"Unfortunately, there are times we do have accidents and deaths of young people," Bittner said. "And that is challenging, and with a number of years of experience, I can't necessarily say it gets any easier."

Bittner is still committed to a job he started three decades ago, which also earned him about $4,000 from the county in 2015, according to the county auditor's office.

Rietveld's just as committed, but he thinks it may be time for county voters to make a change.

"I think you've got to have somebody who's been in the business for years, and you've got to have some compassion, too," Rietveld said. "And George does, he's done a great job, I just think it's time for somebody else to take a shot at it."

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Since no other candidates filed petitions to get on the ballot as Democrats or Independents, the winner of Tuesday's primary will serve as the next Davison County Coroner.

Related Topics: ELECTION 2016
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