Hall County Coroner Marion Merck, who has been unopposed in the past several election cycles, is being challenged by retired Sgt. Doug Forrester.
Forrester, who retired in November after 15 years with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office to pursue this office, said it is his “public servant’s heart” that drew him to this race.
“I feel like it’s a calling to be a public servant. I could have chosen probably any office to run for, but I feel like (the coroner’s office) lines up closer to who I am and what I am,” he said.
Forrester said he feels it is a political office with a personal feel, interacting with those who have lost a loved one. He said he wants to bring a few changes as well as a “new energy and a new vision.”
Experience: More than 25+ years in law enforcement, certified criminal justice specialist from Lanier Technical College. Local pastor with 38 years in ministry. Former local business owner.
Merck, who has served as Hall County’s coroner since 1988, said he is a “proven coroner” who has worked death cases of all types for the past 32 years. Merck is also the funeral director and manager of Memorial Park Funeral Home.
“I’ve been to school every year. I stay up on the recent things that are happening,” Merck said.
Experience: 60+ years in the funeral home business, 32 years as coroner
The role of coroner is responsible for determining the cause and manner of deaths. Under Georgia code, the coroner takes charge of the body after being notified of “suspicious or unusual deaths.”
“The coroner or county medical examiner shall, in the absence of the next of kin of the deceased person, take possession of all property of value found on such person, make an exact inventory thereof on his or her report, and surrender the same to the person entitled to its custody or possession. The coroner, medical examiner, or peace officer shall take possession of any objects, anatomical specimens, or articles which, in his or her opinion, may be helpful in establishing the cause of death, manner of death, or identification of the deceased; and in cooperation with a forensic laboratory he or she may make such tests and examinations of said objects, specimens, or articles as may be necessary or useful in determining the cause of death, manner of death, or the identity of the deceased,” according to the Georgia code.
Forrester said he would like to sever the coroner’s office’s ties to a funeral home and place it in a neutral, centrally located area.
"If you think about it, there’s no other elected position that operates out of a for-profit business,” Forrester said.
Merck said there have been few times where the coroner’s office has not been in a funeral home, but he stressed that he keeps the two entities separated.
Forrester said he would also look at developing an application process that would put mortuary transport services — companies that transport the deceased to the funeral home or medical examiner — on a rotation.
One company is currently under contract by the county for the past several years.
“I’m going to look at the standard operating procedure of the office currently and update and make any changes as we need to,” Forrester said.
Merck put an emphasis on his work experience not only as a coroner but his time in the funeral industry, where he has worked with many families over the years. He has worked in the funeral business since he was 14.
Merck also stressed his good working relationship with the medical examiners and the law enforcement agencies that interact with the coroner during death investigations.
“My future plan for the coroner’s office is to someday get a morgue here where we’ll have a county morgue,” Merck said. “Right now we’re using coolers in funeral homes and things of that nature.”
In recent years, Merck said his job has not only involved investigating the cause of death but potentially saving lives. He mentioned an example of a medical examiner discovering some potential hereditary health issues during an autopsy, with Merck’s office working to coordinate with the family to inform them of these potential health risks.
“It has come in the past several years … that our office also feels that we were going to be instrumental in maybe saving some children’s lives or their good health,” he said.