New push for change at Cook County morgue

February 1, 2012 4:31:34 PM PST
The scandal at the Cook County medical examiner's office -- with bodies piled up and overcrowding the morgue -- moved Wednesday to a new, political venue.

In this Intelligence Report: Two new pieces of legislation are aimed at reorganizing the M.E.'s office.

If there is to be a legislative overhaul of morgue management by Cook County commissioners, it didn't succeed Wednesday, to the dismay of those who drew up the proposals and others who backed them.

Some observers expected Dr. Nancy Jones, the medical examiner, might show up, but she didn't, while two proposals aimed at cracking down on her office were raised.

Commissioner John Fritchey's proposed ordinance would reign in the unlimited term of the county medical examiner position and was intended to impose some accountability.

"I think everyone here can agree that a term of office that continues until someone resigns or is removed for cause is a pretty good term," said Cook County Commissioner Peter Silvestri. "That's just short of a Supreme Court justice. I think this resolution is well intended. We have to be accountable every four years."

Despite the photos of horrendous conditions at the morgue, some commissioners flocked to support embattled county medical examiner Jones.

"I think it only fair that she have due process, and that's the only way we are going to come to a real clear conclusion," said Cook County Commissioner Deborah Simms.

And so there was no vote Wednesday.

"I'm asking to go to finance as there are a number of issues that have to be addressed in the total of this office, and it will be involving the commitment of capital," said county board finance chairman John Daley.

"I am displeased with what I see as a breakdown in the process of commitment that were made," Fritchey said. "I am not going to protest his motion. I am not happy about it though."

And, with that, Commissioner Fritchey stormed out of the chamber.

Also introduced Wednesday was an ordinance to make the medical examiner's office responsible for notifying next of kin. The sponsor cited an I-Team report about a family that phoned the M.E.'s office for more than two weeks looking for a loved one when his body was there the entire time.

"What I don't like is when people tell me it isn't their responsibility," said Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski. "We need to get in and figure out how we improve that process and make the proper notification once we assume jurisdiction of the bodies."

That proposed notification ordinance was also sent to the finance committee.

Before the board meeting, Cook County President Tony Preckwinkle met with ministers who have protested morgue conditions and the apparent mishandling of human remains. In a statement, Preckwinkle said that she admitted to ministers there had not been enough attention paid to quality staff in the medical examiner's office, and she said they are investigating how to fix the problems.