Coroner's office could be merged with sheriff

FRESNO, Calif.

He told Action News: "Totally surprised we had no warning that they were going to eliminate my department."

The only clue, a single line on a late addition to the board's agenda, to consider the "consolidation of elective county offices." It wasn't until he was contacted by a reporter that Hadden found out that he was a target. It was Supervisor Debbie Poochigian's idea to bring this up apparently out of the blue and she made no apologies.

"Maybe we should have done this six months ago but here we are today and that doesn't mean we shouldn't do it today," Poochigian said.

Poochigian noted that since 31 of California's 58 Counties have the Sheriff act as coroner Fresno County should look into it. But her measure does more than that. It would put turning the position of coroner over to the Sherriff to a vote of the board over the next two weeks. Supervisor Phil Larson was puzzled.

"I guess my question is, do we want to do that right now. I mean what do we do to the Sheriff."

In fact, Sheriff Margaret Mims told Action News she didn't know what to make of this, since she only heard of this Monday night.

Most of the counties which have the Sheriff-Coroner system are small and rural. California's major counties have elected Coroners who are medical doctors, like Hadden, or have appointed Medical Examiners.

Fresno County split the duties of Coroner and Sheriff back in 1978 because then Sheriff Hal McKinney felt there were too many conflicts of interest. Hadden says there are more now than ever.

"The conflict of interest is huge and that's why the Sheriff- Coroner is a regressive model, it's a 19th century model. You want an independent organization to evaluate in custody deaths, jail deaths, officers involved shootings."

The County's Chief Forensic Pathologist, Dr. Venu Ghopal testifies in many lawsuits filed over police shootings. He told the Board of Supervisor juries tend not to believe pathologists who work directly for law enforcement. And noted bringing in outside experts in the many local law enforcement shootings will cost the county more money.

Poochigian said she wants to investigate cost savings, but Hadden said there's no money to be saved. He says the staff and other costs would have to remain the same. Board Chairman Henry Perea saw no reason to move forward and strip and elected office away from the will of the people.

"We may have the authority to do this board, but I haven't heard one threat of evidence or any kind of strategic plan to say this makes sense."

But a majority of the board went along with Poochigian to study then vote on the matter. While it doesn't mean the Coroner will be merged with the Sheriff, it sets the stage for a quick change.

After Tuesdays vote Hadden said: "It's a little hard to know what to think. Some testimony today suggested if it's not broken why fix it and I do not consider our department to be broken. No criticisms of the job we were doing in today's discussion, just, "Oh, we need to change."

Hadden noted that cutting his job would not save the county any money, since he would have to start drawing his county pension, if they eliminate his job.

The board takes up the matter again on November 12th, and if approved they will hold a second and final vote in December.

If they want to eliminate the position of elected Coroner the change needs to be in place before the 2014 election cycle starts. Hadden has said he planned to run for re-election.

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