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Preckwinkle seeks new medical examiner and culture change to clean up morgue mess

 Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle holds press conference announce changes personnel policy procedure Cook County Medical Examiner’s office.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle holds a press conference to announce changes in personnel, policy and procedure at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office. Tuesday, June 19, 2012 I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 21, 2012 6:18AM

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has racked up plenty of successes — including her tight grip on government spending — since she took the reins from Todd Stroger, but the mess at the morgue is going down as her first real embarrassment in office.

Now the county’s first-term chief executive is changing the culture at the morgue, seen in the departure of three top managers, including Tuesday’s announcement that Chief Medical Examiner Nancy Jones, will retire next month from her $230,640-a-year post, and Kimberly Jackson is being ousted as the morgue’s $110,354 chief executive officer.

Jackson is a patronage employee installed by family friend Stroger when he was at the helm. Last month, Jones’s deputy, Dr. Mitra Kalelkar, also retired.

As the top administrator in the M.E.’s office, Jackson is the Jones deputy charged with overseeing personnel and purchasing as well as investigative staff and medical records, including the production of death certificates and  indigent burials.

Preckwinkle announced the shake-up — which had been reported in Tuesday’s Sun-Times — at a morning news conference.

“So I’m here to announce everything you read in the newspaper this morning,” she told reporters.

Preckwinkle talked with the Sun-Times on Tuesday about dispatching her own deputies to take a deeper dive into operations at the morgue after the newspaper first disclosed bodies were piling up and other problems.

Her aides found not only a body cooler beyond its capacity of 300 but also management problems at an operation that was understaffed while some employees loafed.

“I think it’s fair to say that the stories about the overflowing coolers led us to focus on the medical examiner’s office in a way and to the extent we hadn’t before,” Preckwinkle told the Sun-Times in an exclusive interview. “And once we did that, we discovered the place needed a lot of attention.”

While her staff counted 363 bodies in the cooler only days after the newspaper’s initial report, Preckwinkle echoed Jones’ explanation for the larger-then-usual number of dead: state funding for burials of those on public aid had been slashed last year, so remains were being kept in the cooler for long periods. That money has been restored.

But Preckwinkle said more needed to be fixed, including personnel problems.

She recalled how, in one morgue department, just four of the six staffers were actually working. The two slacking off got a good talking to and both had divergent responses to the get-to-work order.

“So the two people who weren’t working were told that they had to work,” Preckwinkle told the Sun-Times: “One of them immediately retired. And the other person didn’t work for a couple days and they were told they would be disciplined if they didn’t work. And then they started working,” Preckwinkle said.

Indeed, Preckwinkle’s office said four people have been fired in the wake of her office’s examination of the office.

In addition, eight vacant positions have been filled to keep the office running better.

“I don’t think there was an appropriate attention paid to staff performance,” Preckwinkle said. “As I’ve said, if you don’t fill vacant positions ... you’re clearly not doing a very good job of management.”

Preckwinkle was initially critical of Jones — hinting she’d like to fire her but couldn’t because Jones served an open-ended term and wasn’t a political appointee Preckwinkle could demote or fire. But Preckwinkle later tempered her comments. Indeed, Jones may return to help with training graduate students working at the morgue, though it’s unclear whether she’ll be paid.

Even Tuesday, Preckwinkle said of the outgoing medical examiner: “Clearly Dr. Jones was a very fine pathologist, but there were clearly management and leadership issues that we now have an opportunity to address.”

During the news conference Preckwinkle didn’t answer a reporter’s question about whether she pushed Jones, a 26-year veteran of the office, into retiring as sources close to the outgoing chief medical examiner believe is the case. Preckwinkle only offered this refrain: “The fact that Dr. Jones has chosen to resign ... will give us the opportunity to provide the leadership needed.”

Now she’s focusing on what’s ahead, including a nationwide search for Jones’ replacement and announcing Jackson’s replacement, Illinois Department of Public Health employee Daryl Jackson — no relation.

Several months ago, the County Board passed a measure that ends the morgue chief’s open-ended term of office and sets it at five years, while making it easier to fire the official.

Changes, too, in policy and procedure are underway at the morgue, 2121 W. Harrison, with plans to install an electronic timekeeping system for staff and an electronic “case management” system to keep a closer watch on bodies coming in and out of the office.

Already, morgue staffers tell the Sun-Times, the medical examiner’s office is a cleaner, more professional environment. That’s a far cry from the roughly 400 adults and 100 fetuses, stacked on top of each other against a wall in blue plastic tarps that staff told the Sun-Times about five months ago. Gone, too, is the stench and blood and bodily fluids pooling in the cooler — prompting a state labor department probe, staffers say.

Indeed, the number of bodies is down according to a recent count. On June 2, there were 234 bodies and 56 fetus remains, according medical examiner records.

On Tuesday, a morgue employee who wouldn’t provide a name for fear of retribution, said the working environment is better.

“It is cleaner — I guess downtown really got on them. For a number of years though it wasn’t even an issue; the clean-up crew never went in there to clean up. With the scandal, they have a cleaning crew go in there just about every day and clean the floors, the doors and shelves,” the employee said.

The county’s independent Inspector General Patrick Blanchard, whose office launched an investigation and is preparing a report on his findings, agreed.

“It’s much better than it was before when our on-sight activities began in January,” said Blanchard, who paid a visit to the facility Monday. “I toured the cooler yesterday, observed significant change in the maintenance of the facility,” Blanchard told the Sun-Times. “We anticipate reporting the ... individuals were appropriately wrapped, the cooler itself is clean. It’s much better than it was before when our on-sight activities began in January.”

Asked about whether the job of ironing out problems that surfaced on her watch was painful, Preckwinkle said: “It’s not just government, but any enterprise — you can’t expect smooth sailing all the time. This is a particularly tough part of county operations, dealing with the deceased and trying to ensure that those who are indigent get an appropriate burial, respectful and dignified treatment at the end of their lives. And we’re going to try to see that gets done in as professional and thoughtful way as we can.”

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