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The Great Kern County Coroner's Race : In an Unusually Lively Election, the Big Issues Are Misplaced Bodies and the Need for a 'Woman's Touch'

June 01, 1986|JOHN MCKINNEY | John McKinney writes often for this magazine. He lives in Santa Barbara

Helen Frankel, California's first female coroner, remembers the first time the "good ol' boys," as she calls them, put her to the test. She had been in office only a few months. Sheriff's deputies called her at home, just as she was leaving for a weekend outing. A search-and-rescue team had just pulled a body from the Kern River, and it was resting at the bottom of a steep gorge. The deputies were most insistent that neither a coroner investigator nor the assistant coroner would do; only the coroner herself could inspect the body and give permission for its removal. "They said all they wanted was authority to move the body, but really they wanted to see if I could hike down into that gorge and out again." A little game, a proof of macho, she guesses. "Well, I took that hike and took care of that body, and they haven't called me again since," she says with a triumphant twinkle in her eye.

When Frankel, a soft-spoken former nurse, ran for Kern County coroner in 1982, she had never before held elective office. She campaigned on a reform platform, pointing to grand jury reports and county audits that criticized the incumbent coroner's handling of the office, including a huge backlog of uncompleted autopsy reports. She promised improved service to remote areas, grief counseling for the bereaved, and better pathology service.

Now, four years later, she is running for reelection. But the problems with her so-called old-boy network--certain police and sheriff's officials, mortuary owners and even some members of her staff--have hardly diminished. Four candidates are challenging her on the ballot Tuesday for the $62,728-a-year post. Her opponents say that she is not qualified for the job and that her misguided policies have alienated law enforcement agencies and funeral home employees--two groups she must deal with frequently. Frankel, on the other hand, says such complaints are simply the male-dominated old guard resisting changes in the status quo. And, she says, she has brought a more sympathetic "woman's touch" to the duties of the coroner.

As a rule, elections for county coroner are unremarkable affairs, but Kern County's is turning out to be an exception. For example, among the campaign charges against Frankel is that her office has lost or misidentified bodies. And one candidate has taken to dressing as a 19th-Century undertaker--complete with top hat and long black coat--and driving a horse and buggy in local parades.

Despite such oddities, the race has much of the homespun atmosphere of any small-town election. Yard signs predominate over TV ads. Candidates in shirt sleeves and cowboy boots walk precincts. The electioneering is small scale, but the amount of ground covered is not. Kern, California's third-largest county, ranges 8,000 square-miles, roughly the same size as Massachusetts. Covering the territory, much less the issues, is not an easy task for candidates on a tight budget.

Few Californians will be casting ballots for a coroner this month. Thirty-four of the state's counties have a sheriff-coroner (the sheriff part of the job is usually the only part voters consider), 4 have medical examiners and 16 have lay coroners, who are generally appointed rather than elected. The job traditionally involves establishing the correct cause of death and providing information that may help the medical profession, relatives or the criminal-justice system. In Kern County the office is called coroner-public administrator. The coroner oversees a staff of 38 and, as public administrator, settles estates in the absence of a will and manages the affairs of the mentally ill and those physically unable to take care of themselves.

Although the coroner's duties might be well suited to someone with a medical or perhaps a criminal-investigation background, no minimum job requirements exist for the office. According to the Kern County Clerk's Office, any citizen 18 years or older and registered to vote may be coroner.

Running for coroner is difficult; running on the issues even more so. At candidate forums, citizens' eyes glaze over when the coroner and would-be coroners discourse upon such topics as pathology contracts, autopsy ratios and body-transfer services.

Frankel, however, is running for reelection on her record. As she walks through the morgue one day, she indicates some of the more visible changes that have been made in her office. She points out the new computerized accounting system. Kern County's coroner is responsible for living people too, she says, and the computer helps keep track of the financial affairs of several hundred mentally ill and disabled people placed under the care of the coroner. In her next term, Frankel hopes to computerize the disposition of the dead. But until a computer program is written, her office keeps track of bodies with the help of a large wall chart.

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