The committee tasked with recommending a new medical examiner for Flagler, St. Johns and Putnam County this morning narrowed its search to five applicants who will be interviewed for the $320,000-a-year job on December 6 in St. Augustine.
“The medical examiner position impacts our community very significantly,” State Attorney R.J. Larizza, who chairs the committee, said at the beginning of the meeting, explaining the importance of the process and the outsized role the medical examiner plays in law enforcement investigations, court cases and private lives.
“It impacts our criminal justice system, our law enforcement agencies but also it impacts suicides and the other reasons that they do autopsies,” Larizza said: every car crash fatality is the subject of an autopsy, for example, which can determine the difference between human error and a medical episode, or the role substance abuse may have played in the crash. A medical examiner’s report–if not the medical examiner herself or himself–can make or break an investigation. So the appointment is highly strategic and can be political: it is ultimately made by the governor, not the commission or its committee.
“We want somebody that we can work with, too,” Larizza said candidly. “I can tell you, I’ve seen what I would consider to be very unpleasant situations in some other jurisdictions if you get a medical examiner that becomes, you know, let’s just say not very effective and hard to work with. You’ve got to have somebody that can work with law enforcement, with the funeral directors, with the counties and with their employees and staff.”
The five candidates were shortlisted from a pool of eight during a two-and-a-half-hour meeting of the Medical Examiners Commission Search Committee of the 23rd District. The five pathologists are Kent Harshbarger, the Montgomery County, Ohio, coroner; Keng-Chih Su (he goes by Kenny), a forensic pathologist at the coroner’s office in Sacramento, Calif.; Stacey Simons, an associate medical examiner in Florida’s District 18 in Rockledge; Catherine Miller, an associate medical examiner in West Palm Beach; and Wendolyn Snead, the chief medical examiner in District 15 in West Palm Beach. (Miller’s title in a previous version of this article had been misstated.)
The committee is working to replace Predrag Bulic, for 12 years the chief medical examiner in District 23, based in St. Augustine. He died unexpectedly in July. The powerful committee, a bevy of Alpha males and one Alpha woman, is chaired by State Attorney R.J. Larizza and includes voting and non-voting, advisory members.
Flagler County was represented this morning by County Commissioner Andy Dance. Also around the table were Public Defender Matt Metz, St. Johns County Sheriff Robert Hardwick, St. Augustine Police Chief Jennifer Michaux, St. Johns County Deputy Administrator Brad Bradley, and Putnam County’s Karl Flagg, representing the funeral parlor industry, and Island Doctors’ Roy Hinman, representing physicians. John Thogmartin, currently serving as interim chief medical examiner, sat at Larizza’s left. The two-and-a-half hour meeting, which took place at the St. Johns County administration complex, was also attended by its only zoomed-in member, Stephen Nelson, who chairs the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.
The process down to the make-up of the committee is set out by law. The committee is like a judicial nominating commission. It runs the search, backgrounds and interviews candidates. But it can only make a recommendation to the Medical Examiners Commission, which in turn forwards the recommended candidate or candidates to the governor. At that point it depends on executive action. That’s been wanting lately as far as medical examiners are concerned.
“The bad news is,” Nelson said, “every single medical examiner in the state is up for appointment or reappointment for over three and a half years. There’s been no movement from the governor’s office for an appointment or a reappointment for anyone. So in the end, what happens is the state attorney has the appointment to make that interim appointment.”
That could well be what happens once the interviewing is over and the committee has determined whether its chosen candidate would accept an offer: Larizza will likely make yet another interim appointment, replacing Thogmartin, whose insights on the profession, on what to look for in a medical examiner and on questions to ask committee members depended on most this morning.
“I’m kind of shocked you only got eight applicants,” Thogmartin said. “It just shows you the market. I thought you’d get 20, or maybe they’re not aware.” Nelson had just spoken of the mass retirement of a generation of medical examiners, with little behind it to replace it. “There’s going to be a large sucking sound as we leave the state because there are not enough people to replace us as we leave,” he said. “There just are not enough training programs turning out forensic pathologists nationwide.” THat makes it “very much a seller’s job.”
In fact, some of the candidates shortlisted for the December interviews have interviews in another district in Florida the day before. The committee expects that by December 6, when interviews will be conducted in person over the course of the day, the shortlist will be shorter. At least one candidate on the list–Harshbarger–doesn’t yet have a Florida medical license.
The committee has tasked St. Johns County Human Resources Director Lilian Hutchinson to pre-interview the candidates, asking them if they will be ready to commit to the job that day if it’s offered to them (the committee doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time), when they may have a Florida license if they don’t have one now, whether and where they’ve applied to other medical examiner’s offices, when they might start, and how many autopsies they’ve performed. For comparison’s sake, Bulic, when asked that question on the stand–as medical examiners invariably are when they testify in court–said he’d performed roughly 500 in his career.
The committee has scheduled one more meeting before the day of interviews: on Nov. 21 in St. Augustine to go over questions that’ll be asked of each candidate. Since the committee meets in the sunshine–its meetings are public–its members may not communicate with each other outside of announced meetings.