The easy joke is that coroner is a dead-end job.
But for the two men running for that office on the June ballot — incumbent Robert Foucrault and challenger Rick Dalton — the position is a very serious matter.
The two sat down with the Daily Journal to discuss why each feels they are the best person to head the office which handles death investigation, coordinates with the funeral home industry, arranges cremation for the indigent and operates programs like Save-A-Life which brings court-ordered at-risk youth into the morgue to promote safe behavior.
The elected position does not require any qualifications beyond a high school diploma or equivalent although both Foucrault and Dalton said they bring other skills that make them the perfect candidate.
Foucrault, 51, joined the office in 1992 as a body remover and autopsy technician. He was named coroner in 2001 after the death of predecessor Adrian “Bud” Moorman and elected in three contested races since. He served twice as president of the California State Coroner’s Association and is currently helping develop curriculum.
“It pays to have high-level experience,” Foucrault said of who voters should want in the office.
Dalton, 48, has little negative to say about Foucrault and the office’s current operations but believes democracy means incumbents don’t always run unopposed or win.
“I believe it’s time for a new set of eyes on this office,” Dalton said. “It’s time for a change and I’d like to be the guy who makes the difference.”
Dalton owns a Redwood City-based diesel delivery service and has investigate experience from time in the U.S. Army military police. He’s had an interest in holding an elected position and settled on coroner as the place to make his inroad.
Dalton isn’t sure if the 15-person office is adequately staffed but believes employee retention is important and questions why there isn’t more longevity. Foucrault said there has been some departures due to worker’s compensation-related incidents but that nobody has left because they disliked the working environment. He said one pathologist in the office has a tenure greater than 40 years and that a front office employee has been with the office more than 30 years.
If elected, Dalton said continuing education for the staff and crime scene safety are among his priorities. He said a reliable source informed him the Coroner’s Office received a federal grant for self-contained breathing apparatus that remain unused because the associated training hasn’t happened. If a body is located in a methamphetamine lab, for instance, Dalton asked how will removers be able to do their job safely?
Foucrault said the office received the gear about four years ago and some of the current investigators were trained with the Daly City Fire Department but that staff turnover has left some new workers still in need. He is currently looking for a provider in closer proximity.
Dalton is also interested in raising revenue outside of taxes which is where he said his sales and marketing background will prove helpful. One idea is possibly looking at contracting services with smaller counties. Dalton said his attention to detail is another personal attribute he would bring to the office.
Foucrault said he manages his $3 million budget with an eye toward savings and was recognized by the county manager two years ago for his efforts which included consolidating payroll with the county Human Resources Department and bringing a $500,000 renovation of the morgue under budget.
While the coroner isn’t as public as other elected positions, Foucrault found himself and the office in the limelight several times in his last term due to fatalities that garnered national, and even international, attention — the small plane crash in East Palo Alto that killed Tesla employees, the San Bruno gasline explosion and fire, the Hayward-San Mateo Bridge limousine fire and the Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport.
Foucrault’s conclusion that a teenage passenger survived the flight only to be run over by a San Francisco fire engine was challenged by the city but he consulted with his forensic pathologist several times and held his ground with what he said was an “unpopular truth.” After the crash, Foucrault said he stationed an investigator full time at the family center to act as a liaison between the victims’ families and his office — a commitment he said was praised by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Looking forward, Foucrault said he wants to expand Save-A-Life in a modified fashion into sixth-grade classrooms and champion technology such as a smartphone fingerprint application that lets investigators make body identifications in the field.
A big item on his wish list is moving the coroner’s administrative office from the crime lab on Tower Road in San Mateo where it currently leases space to the county government center in Redwood City. The current site has no public transportation and people seeking death certificates find themselves going to Tower Road first and then another trip to the county clerk/recorder’s office in Redwood City.
“It’s not beneficial to anyone to be out there,” he said.
County Manager John Maltbie is amenable to the idea which will put the office near other county departments and more accessible.
The coroner’s job also includes promoting the office and letting the public know how it really operates as opposed to what they might see on TV, he said.
“You don’t just pick the body up and leave,” he said.
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