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Help wanted: $230,000, scandals, politics and corpses included

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Updated: July 24, 2012 9:50AM

Scandal, budget cuts and the political firestorm leading to Tuesday’s announcement that Cook County Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones will be retiring as the morgue’s top boss will make the national search for her replacement tough, experts and even those inside county government say.

“Do you want to relocate and jump into that situation which I guess is really politically volatile right now? That’s the question you have to ask yourself if you’re thinking about it,” said Stephen Nonn, the president of the Illinois Coroners and Medical Examiners Association and the coroner in Downstate Madison County.

Nonn and others say anyone considering the job of running one of the largest morgues in the country also may be turned off by the newly instituted 5-year term of office and a policy making it easier to fire the medical examiner. The county board did away with the chief medical examiner’s open-ended term after the Chicago Sun-Times reported corpses were stacking up in a cooler and that staff were complaining about unsanitary working conditions because of blood and other bodily fluids pooled on the floor.

“Again, you uproot your family but then you’re only given five years before you’re up for review. It’s asking a lot for someone to come and do this and then potentially have to uproot again in five years,” Nonn said, noting that terms of office vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Some of Jones’ colleagues around the country — many of whom call her one of the best forensic pathologists around — are weighing in on the job opening for the $230,000-a-year post on the National Association of Medical Examiner’s website — a members-only site. While the head of the organization wouldn’t comment on the tone of the online conversation — saying it would violate privacy — an Illinois pathologist and member of the organization says it’s not flattering.

“They’re telling people to run away,” said a forensic pathologist who would talk only on condition of anonymity. “They’re warning doctors how tough it’s going to be.”

Dr. Andrew Baker, the president of the national association, said he didn’t have any firsthand knowledge of Cook County’s problems, but he said the search may be tough because the pool of full-time forensic pathologists is estimated at 400 to 500 nationally — a supply that falls short of demand, he says.

According to county ordinance, the chief medical examiner must be a physician licensed by the state of Illinois to practice “in all branches of medicine” as well as certified in anatomic and forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology.

The office is charged with determining the cause and manner of death, including in homicides, car crashes and mysterious deaths.

More than 18,000 deaths are reported to the medical examiner annually. About 6,000 are investigated each year, and 5,200 autopsies are performed.

In addition to solving the mystery of how someone died, the chief medical examiner oversees an office of 86 staff and leads a work force that has been divided along racial and political lines, the latter often translating to lower-paid and lower-ranking employees picking up the workload of loafing patronage workers.

“That is shifting,” said one staffer, who admits a Democratic committeeman paved the way for his hiring. The employee, who would talk only on condition of anonymity, said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — whose office oversees the morgue — is cracking down on do-nothing employees in the wake of the scandal.

The money, too, needs to be in place to get the job done, experts say. Jones has raised concerns privately with elected leaders that her $6.8 million budget wasn’t enough to do it right. Last year, the state slashed funding that covered funeral and burial expenses for those on public aid. That triggered the pileup of bodies revealed by the Sun-Times in January, Jones told reporters earlier this year. Those dollars have since been restored.

“Some people might be turned off by it, others might be challenged by it,” Dr. Charles Hirsch, New York City’s Chief medical examiner, said of the headlines and budget woes. “Someone who is potentially interested in it needs to get a lot of information about the office, all of those details. I’d be reluctant to rely on word-of-mouth or what’s in the newspapers.”

He said some candidates may insist on some kind of “memorandum of understanding” regarding the budget and mission of the office.

Baker, who is also the Minnespolis-based chief medical examiner for Hennepin County, said there’s no question Cook County will find someone to fill the slot: “You may find people looking for that challenge — maybe a deputy somewhere looking for that challenge. But they’ve got to have the administrative support, they’ve got to have the political support and they’ve got to have financial support.”

As of Friday, no one had called expressing interest in the job, according to Preckwinkle’s office. And the job had not been formally posted on the county’s website or elsewhere as officials work to update the job description, a representative for Preckwinkle said.

After announcing Jones’ resignation and the ouster of Kimberly Jackson, the morgue’s chief administrator — a family friend of former Board President Todd Stroger, who gave her the job that critics say she fumbled — Preckwinkle reflected on the controversy and finding new leadership.

“I wanted this job despite the publicity that went on prior to my tenure,” Preckwinkle said, referring to her embattled predecessor Stroger. “So I think there are probably other people out there willing to take on the challenge.”

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