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Cook board makes firing of medical examiner easier, sets 5-year term

Thursday, March 01, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by John Byrne

The Cook County Board of Commissionersvoted today to set a five-year term for the county medical examiner.

The ordinance, which also establishes explicit rules for removing the medical examiner from office, comes after reports in recent weeks that hundreds of bodies were stacking up at the Cook County morgue.

The board's Finance Committee passed the ordinance, and the full board passed it this afternoon.

The new rules, which passed after weeks of sometimes contentious debate among commissioners, would allow the county board president to request the medical examiner be removed for "negligence, malfeasance, misfeasance, immoral, illegal or unethical conduct or failure to properly execute the duties of such position."

The board president would be required to state the medical examiner is not being removed for political reasons, and the president's request would be subject to a hearing and a vote by the Board of Commmissioners.

Previously, county rules said the medical examiner could be "removed for cause," but included no term limit.

Commissioner William Beavers, D-Chicago, voted "present" on the plan, after saying he would have preferred to hear a report by Preckwinkle's office on morgue operations before voting on the rule change.

After the vote, Robin Kelly, the county chief administrative officer, reported on the situation at the morgue. Kelly, who was sent by Board President Toni Preckwinkle to assess what was happening, did not criticize Medical Examiner Nancy Jones or other Medical Examiner's Office officials for their work at the morgue.

Kelly instead pointed to reductions in state funding for the morgue as being responsible for around 175 of the 363 bodies that were being stored at the morgue as of January.

In some cases, Kelly said, morgue officials have to wait to bury people while confirming the bodies aren't military veterans and that their religious beliefs allow burial. Kelly said bodies are sometimes kept at the morgue for more than a year, in cases where a crime investigation is underway or family members are trying to raise money for a burial.

Commissioner John Fritchey, D-Chicago, said Jones should have come before the board herself to discuss what is going on at the morgue. "I think it would have been reasonable to say, to ask her for her professional opinion" on the problems at the morgue, Fritchey said.

"There's an inescapable perception that she's hiding," Fritchey said.

Kelly said the county has posted to hire nine morgue employees, and will soon seek four more workers there.

The board also voted today to put in place a 60-day time limit on how long bodies can be kept at the morgue. There would be extensions for investigation of crimes or other special circumstances. The new standards would also require the morgue to make attempts to notify next-of-kin within 48 hours that a body has arrived at the facility. 

Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, D-McCook, said he sought to institute the new time limit and notification standards to protect people from suffering like the Warren family, who were unable to verify the body of their relative, Brian Warren, was at the morgue for two weeks.

Members of the Warren family testified they were thankful the commissioners were taking steps to spare others from going through what they did.

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