After months of evaluating operations and making lower-level changes at the troubled county morgue,Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinklelaunched a major shake-up Tuesday that included the departure of the two top officials at the medical examiner's office.
Out was Medical Examiner Nancy Jones, who will retire at the end of July, and Kimberly Jackson, the top administrator in the office. In was Daryl Jackson, a longtime state Public Health Department supervisor that Preckwinkle chose as the new administrator. And a nationwide search was launched to replace Jones.
"We believed that we needed stronger management and (Jones') departure and the hire of Daryl Jackson reflects that concern," Preckwinkle said, while also announcing she was setting up an advisory board to review operations at the medical examiner's office.
The changes aim to "ensure efficiency and safety," Preckwinkle said, calling the remake of the office "an ongoing process." They were made after Robin Kelly, the board president's chief administrative officer, studied the office's operations and looked at how similar offices across the country did their business.
Preckwinkle's announcement came as county Inspector General Patrick Blanchard nears the end of his review of the office's operations. That probe began after employees in January complained there were too many bodies in the morgue's cooler.
At the time, Preckwinkle aides found that 363 bodies were stored in a cooler designed to hold 300. The county blamed the problem on the suspension of state funding for indigent burials.
On Tuesday, Kelly said there were other problems in the office. They included a staff shortage and workers who "weren't doing their jobs," Kelly said.
Since January, four medical examiner's office employees have been fired and eight vacant positions have been filled, Kelly said. Training has been stepped up and procedures have been changed.
Further changes in the works include the development of an electronic case-management system, a new electronic time-keeping system, and tighter security and safety measures, Preckwinkle said.
Meanwhile, state funding for indigent burials has been restored. As of June 2, there were 234 adult remains and 56 fetal remains at the morgue, officials said.
Whomever is picked to replace Jones, a highly lauded pathologist who some suggested wasn't the best manager, will get one of county government's tougher jobs in a time of budget austerity. Spending cuts have reduced the medical examiner's office budget by $1.7 million, to $6.9 million, during the last two years, according to county budget documents.
Although Jones declined to comment on her departure, predecessor Edmund Donoghue was not so reticent when he left in late 2006 after a 10 percent cut to his budget, saying that budget trim was partly responsible for his resignation.
"The government gets what it pays for, like anything else," said Dr. Elliot Weisenberg, a pathologist and friend of Jones who thinks she has been unfairly treated. "They are perfectly happy to throw Nancy to the wolves."
Preckwinkle took pains Tuesday to praise the medical abilities and skills of Jones, who has toiled in the office for more than 25 years and was promoted to the top spot by former County Board President Todd Stroger in 2007.
Liane Jackson, a Preckwinkle spokeswoman, said the cuts were made because the office was not spending its full budget.
Jones might help train graduate students at the office after her resignation takes effect. What that would involve, and how much it would pay, have yet to be determined, Preckwinkle said.
In a related matter, County Commissioner John Fritchey, D-Chicago, deferred a vote on his effort to create a new 5-acre county cemetery for the poor in Oak Forest. Fritchey's effort was opposed by Preckwinkle, with Kelly noting many major counties have adopted cremation. It was opposed by a clear majority of commissioners.
The morgue changes Preckwinkle announced came about 18 months into her first term as the county's chief executive, and stand as a sign of how she is remaking county government. Preckwinkle didn't quickly fire Jones after the morgue problems surfaced, instead taking time to do an analysis before making a move.
In another sign, the County Board on Tuesday unanimously approved four new appointments Preckwinkle made to an 11-member board overseeing the county Health and Hospitals System.
And the County Board approved a new boundaries map that would create a third district with a Latino majority. Earlean Collins, D-Chicago, cast the lone vote against the new map. The new Latino district would be in the west suburbs, where Jeffrey Tobolski, D-McCook, is a first-term commissioner.