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Snohomish Medical Examiner's Office to get independent review

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By Noah Haglund
Herald Writer
@NWHaglund
Published:
Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon's staff is outlining plans for an independent review of the county morgue, despite internal inquiries that found little amiss.
Reardon's office recently completed its own report on the Medical Examiner's Office, addressing questions about management and the condition of bodies after autopsy. Members of the County Council have said an internal review won't put questions to rest. What's needed, they say, is thorough scrutiny by somebody from outside the county.
Deputy Executive Gary Haakenson said Monday he was working with the council and scouting out a consultant for just such a review.
"I think that we're on track to get done what they want to get done," Haakenson said. "We are working cooperatively together to bring resolution to it."
The county Medical Examiner's Office is responsible for determining cause and manner of death. Forensic pathologist Dr. Norman Thiersch has led the office since 1998 and oversees about a dozen staff members, plus a $1.9 million budget.
Some staff have been critical of how the office is being run. A former employee even wrote to Reardon and the County Council early this year with a list of concerns.
A March report by Reardon's human resources director found little merit to the ex-employee's concerns about high turnover and handling of personnel issues.
Another issue that has drawn scrutiny is the condition of bodies autopsied in Snohomish County. There have been a few written complaints from funeral homes since 2003, mainly about the condition of blood vessels in the neck.
In a report that aired in May, a Seattle TV station used those complaints and interviews with anonymous sources to suggest bodies were being mutilated. The TV report and the former employee's letter about management concerns prompted the County Council in June to call on Reardon's office to conduct an independent investigation.
Before the council's request, Reardon already had tasked one of his executive directors, Peter Camp, with looking into the concerns. After confidentially surveying all of the county's funeral homes, Camp concluded there were no widespread problems with autopsies. Camp did acknowledge a "long-standing concern" about morale and personnel relations.
County Councilman Dave Somers said Camp's report "didn't really help much" because the people it surveyed were talking to the executive's office, instead of a neutral party. He was glad to hear about the plans for the independent investigation.
"That's a good thing we're moving forward on it," he said. "That's what we've' been asking for."

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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