Breathe life into the morgue

Snohomish County Executive John Lovick’s management style distilled into four words: Bring in the adults.

Lovick exhibited it by his very presence after the Reardon imbroglio. Then he tapped U.S. Marshal and former legislator Mark Ericks (certified adult) to serve as deputy executive. Integrity and performance became Lovick touchstones.

It’s a leadership style put to the test revamping the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office. As The Herald’s Noah Haglund reports, former Lake Forest Park police Chief Dennis Peterson began work this week as the office’s fix-it poobah.

“His job is to look at every corner of the operation and tell me what we need to change — or to improve or repair, expand or contract,” Ericks said. “The supervision of the investigators will be under Dennis Peterson. Everyone in the office will report to him.”

Not a moment too soon. The Medical Examiner’s Office is a critical public service that weaves everything from medical investigation, to law enforcement, children’s services and notification of next of kin.

In 2010, under the administration of ex-County Executive Aaron Reardon, a consultant was brought in at the request of the Snohomish County Council to review complaints about poor morale, department management and workplace conduct. Many internal beefs centered on the short-fused behavior of Medical Examiner Dr. Norman Thiersch.

In 2011, an investigator resigned after facing allegations that he pocketed drugs from the deceased. In 2012, the office decided not to conduct an autopsy on the body of a 7-year old boy, despite pleas by Monroe detectives.

In September, a former death investigator reached a $495,000 settlement with the county over workplace retaliation (the office has an annual budget of $2.1 million.) One ghoulish accusation has Thiersch expressing his displeasure by yanking the heart and lungs out of a cadaver and flinging them back “into the pool of blood within the chest cavity so as to intentionally splash and splatter blood on the plaintiff’s face and torso.” The settlement doesn’t include an admission of wrongdoing.

Thiersch also has a lot of admirers, including one seasoned prosecutor who called him the best pathologist with whom he’d ever worked. The onus now is on Peterson to come up with a fair and comprehensive plan regarding changes and whether Thiersch is indispensable (beware the myth of the indispensable leader.) The litmus test must be what’s in the public interest and creates a culture of accountability. Adult leaders call for adult decisions.