March 1, 2012: Cook County Board approves bill making it easier to fire medical examiner
By Lisa Donovan, Chicago Sun-Times
Cook County commissioners Thursday abolished the medical examiner’s open-ended term of office and laid out exactly how the morgue chief could be fired.
The moves come on the heels of staff complaints about the “sacrilegious” pileup of bodies there and bodily fluid covering the floor, raising concerns about health hazards. Officials, most notably Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, have pointed the finger at management problems there and specifically at Chief Medical Examiner Nancy Jones.
At a meeting Thursday, the board approved a five-year term limit for the chief medical examiner and precise terms for firing the medical examiner, which would be initiated under the request of the board president and approved by a majority of the county board after a hearing.
A firing could come “upon a claim of negligence, malfeasance, misfeasance, immoral, illegal or unethical conduct or failure to properly execute the duties of such position,” the new ordinance states. Until now, the president could only recommend firing a sitting medical examiner for “cause” and their term of office was undefined.
Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a North suburban Democrat, said: “I don’t think that in public life anyone should get life appointments other than United States district court judges, appellate judges and Supreme Court judges, because the constitution gives them that.”
In addition, the board signed off on a measure that sets a 60-day limit on how long bodies can remain at the morgue, with some exceptions.
Commissioners passed the measures the same day they were briefed about an ongoing internal review of staff complaints about overcrowding and unsanitary conditions at morgue — first reported by the Sun-Times.
Robin Kelly, chief administrative officer, told the board she and her staffers — dispatched to look in to the issues after January news reports — recorded 363 bodies at the morgue. Just under half, or 175, qualified for public funding for burial, however there were some delays in cutting the checks to pay for them.
In her report, she steered clear of laying the blame on management.
Commissioner John Fritchey questioned why Jones wasn’t there to testify about the state of the morgue.
“It would have been reasonable to be able to ask her or hear from her — in her professional opinion, are these conditions comparable to what we’d see in other areas? Were mistakes made?” Fritchey said. “There’s an inescapable perception she’s hiding.”
Jones hasn’t returned calls for comment since January. Preckwinkle has also admitted to muzzling Jones at past events, saying it wouldn’t be appropriate for Jones to comment at this point.
Kelly said that an offer was emailed to the commissioners to meet privately with her and Jones.
County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has been critical of morgue management. But Thursday Preckwinkle was vague about Jones’ future.
“We’ve come to no conclusion about the leadership of the medical examiner’s office,” she said. “That’s still under review.”
Also Thursday, the board:
◆ approved a measure renaming the criminal courts building at 26th and California to “The Honorable George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building.” Leighton, 99, served as Cook County Circuit Court judge, the first African American to sit on the Illinois Appellate Court and a federal judge.
◆ voted down commissioner John Fritchey’s proposal to have voters on the November ballot decide whether to abolish or keep the Recorder of Deeds office, which records property deeds, liens and titles. The measure died in a 9-8 vote of the county board’s finance committee.
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