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Published: Tuesday, December 28, 2010, 12:01 a.m.

Frustrations with medical examiner detailed in report

Public records confirm long-standing issues in the way the county's Medical Examiner's Office has been managed.

EVERETT — A consultant's review of the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office appears to have missed the mark when it described Medical Examiner Dr. Norman Thiersch throwing a scalpel at an employee.
Documents about the incident, released through a public records request, say the tool was a pair of forceps, and they were not thrown at the employee.
The consultant's report may have landed a bull's-eye, though, in its conclusions about long-standing management issues at the county morgue, past and present employees say.
Last month's report could leave county leaders significant work shoring up management shortcomings. County leaders aren't suggesting any big shake-up, though.
“We are satisfied that from a pathology standpoint, from an autopsy standpoint, that the office is top-notch,” Deputy County Executive Gary Haakenson said. “From this point on, we want to make sure we have a good management-employee relationship.”
That may disappoint 14 of the 19 employees in the office, who told the consultant they lacked confidence in Thiersch and other supervisors.
The consultant's report makes clear that problems built up over years and weren't being adequately addressed, said Don Carman, a county death investigator and a shop steward in the union that represents medical examiner employees.
“It's not like employees haven't made complaints in the past,” said Carman, who's been in the job for 28 years. “They just flat disappeared.”
The consultant, Michael R. Fitzpatrick, of Longview, summarized interviews with employees who complained about Thiersch being prone to angry outbursts.
Autopsy account
Thiersch's temper came out during one particular autopsy, where “the employee was unresponsive, so Dr. Thiersch threw a scalpel in the employee's direction but was not actually throwing the tool at the employee,” Fitzpatrick wrote.
That's not what Thiersch or the employee, a pathology assistant, described at the time, according to documents The Herald obtained under public-disclosure laws. The documents include descriptions of the incident from both Thiersch and his employee's point of view, as well as follow-ups from county staff and a union representative.
Thiersch and the employee each recounted a tense scenario on Sept. 19, 2006 as they were opening up the neck of a cadaver. By both accounts, the implement in question was a pair of forceps — a large tweezerlike clamp — not a scalpel. The documents indicate the employee never accused Thiersch of throwing the instrument at him; he said the doctor threw it down on a cutting board.
Thiersch, in the days immediately after the incident, wrote that he was frustrated about the employee not following instructions.
In 2006, the union that represents medical examiner employees raised the incident with County Executive Aaron Reardon's office. The union saw it as a potential safety hazard; the employee, however, said he was more worried about what he perceived as a “hostile work environment.”
“Unfortunately I now feel that this will be brought to the doctor's attention as a safety (breach) and the real issue will be missed,” he wrote to the county's Equal Employment Opportunity investigator, Mark Knudsen.
Knudsen resigned from his job early last year, ahead of a review that was sharply critical of how he conducted his investigations of workplace harassment. A chief concern was sloppy records and lack of follow-up on employee complaints, which often languished for years without action.
Haakenson chalked up the consultant's erroneous description of the forceps-throwing incident to a likely misunderstanding. A lack of available documents from Knudsen's time on the job make it impossible to tell whether the investigator adequately addressed the situation, he said.
Concerns about the handling of employee workplace complaints have simmered throughout Reardon's tenure, which began in 2004. Those complaints grew louder last year, after a woman accused the county planning director of a drunken, sexually motivated assault at a Redmond golf course.
Problems elsewhere
This past year, the former planning director, Craig Ladiser, was given a 1-year suspended sentence after pleading guilty to criminal charges. The county also settled two personnel lawsuits, one of which directly blamed Ladiser, Knudsen and others for failing to discipline planning employees for sexually charged office antics. The county also settled a suit brought by jail employees. Parties from each suit described Knudsen's office as a sort of “black hole” for employee complaints.
The recent $8,000 medical examiner review by Fitzpatrick was the fourth time that the county has looked into complaints surrounding morgue management. In the span of about a year, other reviews have been completed by the county human resources department, an executive director for Reardon, plus a private recruiting firm that had been helping the county hire a pathologist.
Carman said he and others in his workplace are skeptical that the problems can be fixed simply by Reardon's office paying closer attention to how Thiersch and his top staff manage. The report documented that more than 90 percent of workers not in supervisory positions have serious concerns, he noted.
“The general mood from union employees has been relief” that the report “actually shows that the complaints they've had in the past are real,” Carman said.
Thiersch has led the office since 1998 and oversees about a dozen staff members, plus a $1.9 million budget.
Carman came to work for the county when it still operated under the coroner system. He was among those who lobbied for a full-time medical examiner. The hope was that the office would attract and retain people who are professionals in death investigations, he said. Among other things, the skills are critical to prosecuting homicide cases, documenting traffic fatalities and spotting risks to community health and safety.
Reforms proposed
Carman said he's now convinced that the office needs reforms to make the top manager a seasoned public administrator, not necessarily a trained pathologist. There are many people who work in the criminal justice and legal professions who have the necessary training and skills to oversee work performed by pathologists and death investigators, he said.
Such major changes are unlikely for now. Haakenson said he's spoken to Thiersch and his top administrator, Carolyn Sanden, about how to better manage the office. He's counting on them to make necessary changes.
“I don't think we've talked about a reorganization,” Haakenson said, “though we've certainly talked about realigning.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » County executiveMedical Examiner

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