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No independence in medical examiner’s office

Updated: July 21, 2012 6:32AM



Forty years ago this November, Cook County residents voted to eliminate the elected, patronage-ridden office of coroner and replace it with a professional, independent medical examiner.

As it turned out, they only got half of what they were promised.

The Cook County medical examiner’s office has professionalism aplenty, at least on the medical side, with a reputation for employing some of the nations’s top pathologists.

But as far as independence, not so much, at least not when it came to the administrative side of the $6.8 million office. Dependent on the County Board for funding, chief medical examiners over the years ceded partial control of hiring decisions to the board president’s office.

As a result, officials say, the medical examiner’s support staff developed into a dumping ground for patronage employees placed there by successive county administrations.

It was that dynamic that many believe led to the problems at the county morgue first reported by the Sun-Times in January and which County Board President Toni Preckwinkle sought to address Tuesday with the latest moves in her ongoing effort to overhaul the office.

In announcing that she had accepted the resignation of Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones and the office’s top administrator Kimberly Jackson, Preckwinkle assigned no blame for the problems at the morgue.

But in directly exerting her authority over the office, Preckwinkle accentuated the conflict over how to allow the office to operate independently while still assigning accountability when things go wrong.

Many will tell you it’s a shame that Jones, one of those respected pathologists, is taking part of the blame for staffing problems she inherited when she took over five years ago. Jones is only the third person to hold the job since it was established (four years after the 1972 referendum), following in the footsteps of the higher profile Dr. Robert Stein and Dr. Edmund Donoghue.

“She is a remarkable woman and an extremely talented medical examiner,” said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a north suburban Democrat .

Suffredin said Jones always receives high praise from Cook County state’s attorneys.

“She is the one they want on the witness stand in those critical trials because she is so thorough,” he said.

If there is a bright spot in this situation, it is that problems in the office have not been shown to extend to the critical work of the medical examiner in conducting autopsies.

Concern about shortcomings in death investigations, including the deadly 1969 raid on Black Panther headquarters, were a major impetus for the original switch away from an elected coroner.

To give the medical examiner a large measure of independence, the appointment was made for an open-ended term with the county board president having to show cause to recommend firing. That essentially made it a lifetime appointment.

When the Sun-Times first disclosed the problem of bodies backing up at the morgue in January, Preckwinkle cited Jones’ appointment status to argue she was limited in her ability to correct the situation.

Later, the county board moved to limit the chief medical examiner’s term to five years and to more clearly define what would constitute cause for firing.

But the avenue to influence medical examiner operations has been there since the beginning.

“It never was independent. It was always subject to the budget of the County Board,” Suffredin said. “It’s hard to be independent of the pursestrings.”

Or as Commissioner Peter Silvestri, a Republican from Elmwood Park, explains: “It’s easy to control someone when you control the budget.”

To be clear, neither of them suspects Preckwinkle of wanting to place her own political workers at the medical examiner.

Robin Kelly, the county’s chief administrative officer, has taken the lead in asserting control over medical examiner operations for Preckwinkle, but she emphasized that the professionals in the office continue to have complete independence where it matters most — in determining the cause and manner of death.

What’s important, Kelly said, is for the medical examiner to have the “independence to say why and how a person dies, no matter who they are.”

Agreed. But it might also be the right time to find a way to insulate the office from future patronage plays.



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