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Thursday April 15th, 2021 10:59PM

Political newcomer challenges longtime incumbent for Hall County coroner's post

By B.J. Williams Assistant News Director

Typically, a county coroner's race doesn't attract a great deal of attention, but both candidates running for the Hall County coroner's job believe the position is vital to the operation of the county, and they want voters to understand its importance. Doug Forrester, a certified law enforcement officer and pastor, is making his first foray into politics, while incumbent Marion Merck, the manager of Memorial Park Funeral Home's main campus, has held the job for more than three decades and said he has more work to do. 

Doug Forrester: "The coroner's offices lines up with who I am and what I am."

Doug Forrester said he has "a public servant's heart" and while his career so far has reflected that calling, he believes the next step in his professional life is a run for public office. While Forrester said he was qualified to run for any number of positions, he felt that the coroner's office would be the best fit for him. 

"It's a political position with a more personal service," Forrester said in a recent telephone interview with AccessWDUN. "In other words, I can relate to individual families - with grieving families - and deal one-on-one with those individuals. I feel like the coroner's office lines up with who I am and what I am."

The 57-year-old Forrester, a Republican, is a Hall County native, who graduated from East Hall High School. He obtained a certificate as a certified criminal justice specialist from Lanier Tech as part of his continuing education for his law enforcement career.  In his more than two dozen years in law enforcement, he has worked for the Gainesville Police Department, the Hall County Sheriff's Office and the Habersham County Sheriff's Office. Forrester said he retired from Hall County in November so that he could run for coroner. At the time of his retirement, Forrester held the rank of sergeant, and he was the supervisor of the ADVANCE Unit, overseeing all ADVANCE officers in 20 Hall County elementary schools. In his position with Habersham County, Forrester is a school resource officer (SRO).

Additionally, Forrester has served for more than 38 years as a pastor in various churches in Hall County and the surrounding North Georgia area. Plus, Forrester at one time was the co-owner of North Georgia Deer Processing, so he said he has business knowledge that will also help him manage the coroner's office.

"I feel like I'm pretty well rounded," Forrester said. 

Forrester said he is well aware that his opponent has held the office of coroner for more than 30 years, but he said the time is right for him to make a run for the post. 

"I believe that I can bring a new energy and a new vision to the office," Forrester said, and he has devised a five-point plan that he would implement immediately if he is elected.

  • 1 - Forrester would distance the coroner's office from any association with a private, for-profit business. 

"I'll work with government officials to put the office in a neutrally-centered location," Forrester said. "If you think about it, there's no other elected position that operates out of a for-profit business, so that's going to be one of the first things that I hope to accomplish."

  • 2 - Forrester would implement a bi-lingual liaison team to assist with communication in the Latino community. 

"Since we do have a very large Hispanic population here in Hall County, I feel like we need to cater to their needs as well as anyone else," Forrester said.

  • 3 - Forrester would establish an application process for transport service companies for the coroner's office, and place any approved companies on a rotation to provide service for coroner's business. He said he would set up operational guidelines for any company working with the county coroner.
  • 4 - Forrester said he would review current standard operating procedures of the office to determine if any changes or improvements are needed.
  • 5 - Forrester would review the budget, expenditures and training process for the coroner's office.

Forrester and his wife currently reside in the North Hall area. They have three adult children, two daughters and one son, who were all educated in the Hall County School District. The Forresters also have a five-month-old grandson. 

Marion Merck: "Sometimes, we look beyond death and look to life."

Republican Marion Merck was first elected as coroner of Hall County in 1989, taking office in 1990, but Merck said he still has work to do, and that's why he's running again for office.

Merck, who is 81, is also the longtime manager of the main campus of Memorial Park Funeral Home in Gainesville - another position that is time-consuming. Still, he said he is ready, willing and able to continue the work he's been doing for three decades as county coroner.

"This is not a two or three-hour-a-day job...a lot of times it goes 24/7. We just stay busy," Merck told AccessWDUN in a recent telephone interview. 

Hall County has grown in the last 30-plus years, and that means the workload for the coroner's office has also increased.

"I try to be hands on with every one, but when you do 313 cases [which is what we did] last year that goes to the medical examiner's office, which is in Dekalb County, you can see that takes quite a bit of time," Merck said, noting that he has the assistance of three deputy coroners in the office. 

Merck said he's most proud of the partnership he has forged with Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Gerald P. Gowitt, a relationship he believes has been of great benefit to Hall County. Gowitt, he said, coordinated a database that allows Hall County and other counties in his region to easily obtain online information in death investigations. Additionally, Gowitt's staff is available to Hall County, so Merck said expertise is readily available for any death investigation. In fact, all death investigations in Hall County are reviewed by Gowitt's office before a final report is filed. Should he be re-elected, Merck said he has plans to continue working with Gowitt to broaden the online data capabilities available to Hall County. 

Merck said the core responsibility of the coroner's office is to respond to death scenes and then determine the manner of death for the victim, and often, those deaths often involve accidents, suicides or crime scenes, which means working alongside law enforcement. However, every death investigation means working with families, and Merck said that is really the most important part of the coroner's job. He said more than once information obtained from an autopsy has revealed a health issue that family members never knew existed.

"We are to determine the cause and manner of death, but I'm so proud that sometimes we look beyond death and look to life," Merck said, explaining that some autopsies have shown hereditary health problems. That gives the medical examiner the chance to talk with family members and advise them to see their doctors to make sure they don't suffer from the same malady. In fact, he said they were able to consult with a family in the last month.

"This makes me happy to know that I have not only found the cause of death but have found the reason to live."

Merck also said part of his job involves continuing education, and he is in training for three days each year as part of the job requirements for the county coroner's post. 

As for his plans for the office should he be re-elected, Merck said he wants to continue the work he's put in place over the last three decades.

"Everybody knows this - I put in 12, 14, 16 hours a day, but it doesn't bother me because I'm enjoying what I'm doing," Merck said. "When I do 'lay my scalpel down' I want to know that everything's alright and I've left the office in good hands."

Marion Merck and his wife Patricia have five children and 11 grandchildren. 

Follow this link to the the AccessWDUN Voters Guide to read more about other area races on the June 9 ballot. 

  • Associated Categories: Homepage, Local/State News, Politics
  • Associated Tags: Hall County elections , Election 2020, Hall County coroner, Marion Merck, Doug Forrester
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