Fresno County supervisors kill off coroner, move post to county sheriff

The Fresno BeeDecember 3, 2013 

Fresno County supervisors on Tuesday killed off the coroner as an independent elective county office, voting to instead combine it with the sheriff.

The controversial change wipes out a 35-year-old position that was created in 1978 because the sheriff at that time, the late Hal McKinney, convinced supervisors that there was a conflict of interest for him to hold both offices.

A majority of current supervisors brushed aside such concerns, saying Sheriff Margaret Mims and her department can handle the job fairly, impartially — and do it more efficiently than it is currently being done.

"I don't see a compelling reason that this should not be done," Supervisor Andreas Borgeas said.

For the average Fresno County citizen, the change means this: in next year's June election, they won't see the coroner on the ballot as a separate office.

The vote for the change was 3-1, with board Chair Henry R. Perea voting "no" and Supervisor Judy Case abstaining. The change not only moves the coroner post to the sheriff, but takes the coroner's other duty — public administrator — and puts it under the District Attorney's Office. The change takes effect Jan. 1, 2015.

Case's abstention and Perea's opposition hit at the crux of those making arguments against the change.

Perea's basic argument was that he had yet to hear any compelling reason why the change was necessary.

"I have not heard one reason to do this," he said as the debate neared its end.

Case said she supported the move in concept, but was concerned about the short time frame. The issue has only come up in the past month, but time was of the essence because the coroner's post is up for election next June. If supervisors didn't act now, they would have to wait four years.

But Fresno County Superior Court Judge Robert Oliver — who oversees the probate court, which has dealings with the public administrator — expressed concerns in an email to supervisors and asked them not to move forward with the plan, Case said.

The board majority, however, wasn't swayed by concerns over either the short time window or conflicts of interest. They also dismissed criticism that they'd failed to make a case for the change.

Still, there was very little in the way of specifics as to why the change was needed or how the new arrangement would be better for the county. The word "efficiencies" was used early and often, but with very little substantive evidence behind it.

When Perea pressed District Attorney Elizabeth Egan on how, specifically, the change would be an improvement, she stammered as she looked for answers, only to say it would offer "efficiencies."

Mims did offer a few specifics: her department could issue individual radios to deputy coroners to improve communication and the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training has coroner-training classes.

Perea was unconvinced that those changes were more than just window dressing.

Mims also said Dr. David Hadden, the current coroner, had yet to make the county's state-of-the-art facility into a regional forensic center that serves more than just Fresno County. Her office would make that happen, she said.

Later, Mims said her biggest problem with Hadden's office was "the timeliness of coroner's reports. It takes a long time."

She also said her deputies "complained about the cleanliness of the areas they had to work in" at the coroner's office.

When consolidations are proposed, an oft-stated rationale is saving money. A staff report on this change put potential savings at $50,105 in the first year.

But both Perea and Hadden were skeptical of that.

Hadden says the move will cost more in the long run, and Perea noted that a lieutenant is slated to head the coroner's staff in the sheriff's department, but most counties have a higher-paid captain in that position.

"I can assure you within a budget year or two we are going to be staffing this with a captain," Perea said.

Supervisor Debbie Poochigian seemed to be the most aggressive in the debate.

"From here, there's going to be nothing but savings down the road with efficiencies," she said.

Countered Perea: "Don't think you are saving money on this because you are increasing the cost to taxpayers by this action, on top of taking away the people's right to vote on it."

Other than the approaching election, no real explanation was given for the change.

In a short interview later in the day, Mims said: "I didn't ask for this. The board brought it to me."

Supervisor Phil Larson did touch on an issue that may be part of the reason supervisors pushed for the change. But he refused to divulge it, saying it would "embarrass" both Hadden and the board. He never elaborated.

In an interview after the meeting, Hadden said he had no idea what Larson was talking about.

"I know of nothing going on in the coroner's office that would embarrass me," he said.

Larson, in a separate interview, strongly disputed Hadden's comments, saying, "I just told him yesterday."

But Larson still wouldn't elaborate, because he said private citizens were involved.

Hadden has said he had no plans to seek reelection next year. He has advocated for an appointed medical examiner-coroner position like Los Angeles, San Diego, Ventura and San Francisco counties have adopted.

The Fresno County Grand Jury last month agreed in a recent report.

Instead, Hadden felt Poochigian worked to ram the change through, and Mims was only too happy to get the added responsibilities. In the long run, he said, it will make it harder to get an independent medical examiner-coroner.

"In general, in these situations, you get a sheriff who wants to accumulate power, and consolidate a power position and they are reluctant to give this up," he said. "Once they have it, they want to keep it."

Mims declined to respond to Hadden's comments.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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