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Editorial: Former morgue chief failed as manager

Sunday, August 19, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times

We believe every word she said, including the part where she said she had been “stupid.”

With one exception.

It’s a bit much for Nancy Jones, former head of the Cook County morgue, to call her former boss, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, “evil.”

Emotionally cool? Yeah, sure.

Humorless? Some would say so.

But evil?

Jones knows better. She ran the county morgue, after all, where the victims of real evil lie on slabs all around.

Dumping on Preckwinkle doesn’t get Jones off the hook anyway. When conditions at the morgue fell apart late last year and early this year, she was the chief medical examiner, so the failure was hers. The buck stops there.

All the same, in an interview in Friday’s Chicago Sun-Times with columnist Neil Steinberg, Jones offered a terrific insider’s view of how a government agency can go down the tubes when budget cuts and patronage collide.

Jones told Steinberg that her problems began with the quality of her work force. The morgue, she said, was “an 8th Ward dumping ground” where for decades she and her predecessors couldn’t even fire drug addicts.

Payrollers with bad attitudes, some of whom went through the pockets of the dead and stole whatever they could, were protected by the powerful Stroger family.

Sounds about right, don’t you think?

If Jones tried to fire or discipline a black employee, she said, she often was called racist. It was the sort of easy charge to make against a boss when you knew that your real boss — the politician who clouted you the job — will protect you.

That can happen.

Budget cuts added to the morgue’s problems. Suppliers sued to get paid. Medical waste began to build up because the company contracted to take it away wasn’t getting paid.

No doubt.

In July of last year, the state — hard-pressed for money itself — stopped paying for public aid burials.

So funeral directors started sending bodies back to the morgue, where they began to pile up.

We’ve written about that one.

And employees who felt zero loyalty to Jones, who wasn’t being a Stroger or a Stroger toady, manufactured a scene of horror while she was on vacation, stacking bodies haphazardly on the floor. Then they tipped off reporters.

We wouldn’t put it past them.

Jones, who was forced into retirement at the end of July by Preckwinkle, defended herself to Steinberg as a “talented forensic pathologist” who was unsophisticated in politics.

In retrospect, she said, she would have been more forceful in insisting that her deputy “do more of her job.”

Not to be unkind to Jones, who really was up against it, but we’d say she failed as a manager, not as a politician.

Her job was to make sure the morgue ran right. When it did not — when it could not because of budget cuts and patronage — her job was to push back and take a stand.

Every workplace has its politics. Good managers deal with it.

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