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Preckwinkle calls for major changes at morgue

Thursday, January 26, 2012
Daily Herald
by Jake Griffin

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle not only wants wholesale changes to operational procedures at the overcrowded county morgue, but also among the 97 people employed there.

“I expect that people will lose their jobs,” she said Thursday.

Medical Examiner Nancy Jones, however, is insulated from outright firing by Preckwinkle thanks to an ordinance that requires the medical examiner to either resign or be removed from office only for cause. That action would require both notification and an “opportunity to be heard.”

Preckwinkle noted that despite the changes she plans for the operation of the morgue, Jones “will continue to be medical examiner.”

However, she added, “I think it's inappropriate to have (an appointed administrator) to have a term of office equivalent to a federal judge, which is for life.”

The morgue has come under fire in recent weeks following a series of reports about overcrowding in the storage cooler. A similar issue occurred last year. When Preckwinkle sent staff in to check on conditions recently, they reported finding 363 bodies in a space intended to hold about 300 corpses. The county recently buried 77 unclaimed bodies, officials said.

Preckwinkle said she has ordered the county's bureau of administration to look into the operations of the morgue. She is instituting policy and procedural changes intended to provide accountability and disciplinary measures throughout the department.

“I've been as disturbed and discouraged and disappointed about the information that's come from the medical examiner's office as many of you,” Preckwinkle said.

Jones was not at Preckwinkle's Thursday news conference, held in the lobby of the medical examiner's office. The medical examiner did not return calls seeking comment about Preckwinkle's investigation.

Preckwinkle bristled when asked if the overcrowding issue was a result of cost-cutting measures the president has mandated at all levels of county government.

“The problems we have here are a reflection of the way things are being managed, not cuts in funding,” she said.

Preckwinkle said new policies and procedures are being implemented at the morgue, including cutting out requests to hold remains for extended periods of time. She said the office's senior management is also being reorganized to “best address administrative needs.”

Preckwinkle said the new policies require “increased diligence and greater accountability from staff to further the mutual goal of maintaining and protecting the dignity of the deceased.”

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