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Preckwinkle’s pick for morgue post slated to get big raise

Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
by LISA DONOVAN

In announcing she’d found a new morgue boss Tuesday, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and her staff also revealed the incoming chief medical examiner will get a fatter paycheck and more staffing than the sitting chief.


Preckwinkle announced Tuesday she’s appointing Dr. Stephen J. Cina, the associate medical director of the University of Miami Tissue Bank and a board-certified anatomic and forensic pathologist with 20 years of forensic autopsy experience, to the job and giving him a 30 percent pay raise and more staff.

Just where she’ll find the money to pay him $300,000 — $70,000 more than the medical examiner he’s replacing — and bulk up staffing is unclear, given Preckwinkle’s own budget forecast showing the county is working to close a $22.4 million budget hole by year’s end and another $268 million gap next year.

Indeed the morgue had been plagued by financial constraints, including state budget cuts that led to a pileup of bodies, along with allegations of unhealthy working conditions first revealed by the Sun-Times earlier this year.

News of the appointment came as a surprise to at least one county commissioner who learned about it after Tuesday’s regular board meeting began and new agenda items were being distributed detailing Preckwinkle’s pick. Then a similar press release was sent to news outlets.

“I think President Preckwinkle needs this appointment process to go smoothly. Springing this on us I don’t think is the best way to start this process,” said Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, a North Side Democrat.

Cina applied for the job and was among three candidates considered for the position, according to Preckwinkle’s office. In addition to his current position with the soft tissue and bone transplant center at the University of Miami and running a consulting firm, Dr. Cina also served as a Deputy Chief Medical Examiner in Broward County, Fla. from 2007 to 2011. His first year on the job, celebrity Anna Nicole Smith died of an accidental overdose.

In a story this year reported in the Augusta Chronicle, Dr. Cina discussed Smith’s autopsy. Security was so tight, the paper reported, Dr. Cina personally kept watch over the body the first evening her body was there to ensure paparazzi wouldn’t get in and snap a photo.

“He’s impressive. He’s a top forensic pathologists, but he also knows how to handle you guys,” Cook County Commissioner Liz “Doody” Gorman, a suburban Republican, told a reporter.

“I think his credentials are outstanding, and he’s been — in addition to his work in the medical examiner field — a distinguished medical researcher,” Preckwinkle told reporters as she talked about Dr. Cina, whose career also includes a stint as regional medical examiner in the U.S. Air Force. “He’s national respected as a forensic pathologist and he has long been recognized as a leader in his profession. He’s capable of providing the highest level of leadership and direction to our medical examiner’s office and that of course is what we desperately need.”

Preckwinkle has blamed crowding problems at the morgue not only on the state cutting funding, but also on poor management, suggesting early on she’d like to have the option to jettison Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones but didn’t have the authority. Preckwinkle backed off, but Jones announced she’d be leaving at the end of July.

Reached by phone, Dr. Cina told the Sun-Times Tuesday that he has “some big ideas, and I feel the county is supportive.”

“I am aware of the challenges — but it’s nothing insurmountable,” he said, declining to answer further questions. He referred questions, for now, to Preckwinkle’s media office.

Preckwinkle spokeswoman Jessey Neves declined to make him available to answer additional questions saying he would be available at “the appropriate time.”

But Preckwinkle and her staff made it clear that his impressive resume and take-charge attitude, along with a stellar recommendations from former Cook County Medical Examiner Edmund Donoghue made him rise to the top.

An interview committee composed of Preckwinkle aides, including Bureau of Administration Chief Robin Kelly and her deputy Martha Martinez, along with past executive directors of the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office, and members of a morgue advisory committee helped with the selection process.

Donoghue said he’s long respected Dr. Cina and put in a word for him as he met with county officials last week to discuss his suggestions for turning the operation around there.

“I did not encourage Dr. Cina to apply, he did it on his own volition,” Donoghue said in a phone interview from his Georgia home. “I’m very optimistic about Dr. Cina. They’re lucky he decided to apply. There wasn’t a lot of interest given what was going on. Most forensic pathologists don’t want to go to an office that isn’t well-staffed and well-equipped. And this publicity they’ve gotten — a lot of people are saying ‘I don’t want to go there, it will ruin my reputation’. Dr. Cina has a challenge – but I do think it can be done,” he said.

Donoghue said he was blunt with county officials, saying they were going to have to spend more on staffing and beef up the morgue boss’s salary.

“I told them, ‘You have to pay this guy very well, no one’s going to come in for what the current medical examiner is making,” he said of the current $230,640-a-year salary. The Chief M.E. also gets a government take-home vehicle.

Preckwinkle wasn’t available later, when the issue of pay came up, to discuss where she’ll find the money for the raise or more staffing. And multiple staffers declined to say whether Dr. Cina asked for the pay boost or it was offered to him. But her aides say the salary makes Cook County comparable with salaries of morgue chiefs in Los Angeles County and Miami-Dade County where the pay is $276,912 and $288,660, respectively

Some of the 90-plus positions are vacant, but Dr. Cina is also looking to add extra employees get the job done, Preckwinkle told reporters.

“I think he’s asked for additional ones, and of course we will grant his request,” Preckwinkle told reporters.

The county has six vacancies they’re trying to fill currently, county spokeswoman Mary Palelologos said. And Preckwinkle’s office has agreed to Cina’s request to add three more medical examiners to the payroll.

But Fritchey questions why they’re willing to bump up funding the $6.8 million office now.

“If we felt that Dr. Jones was able to do the job with the budget that she had, why shouldn’t this guy be able to do that job with the same budget?” He questioned, later adding: “At a time that we’ve got a quarter billion dollar deficit, I would have been more encouraged by someone who had an attituted that he could do more with less rather than he needs more to do more.”

Cook County Commissioners are expected to take a confirmation vote of the appointment at the July 24th regular board meeting. The medical examiner has a term of 5 years in office.


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