Council rejects morgue plan, drops deputy director

EVERETT — Most of the Snohomish County Council on Wednesday rejected a restructuring plan for the county morgue, leaving the management-challenged office without clear leadership.

Dan Christman has been running the Medical Examiner’s Office as its deputy director since being hired in September. Now, he’s out of a job come Friday.

The former Bothell police sergeant earlier this week had urged the council to formalize an arrangement that would keep him in charge as a nonphysician director. The council balked at his plan because it conflicts with state law, which requires the office be led by a doctor who specializes in forensic pathology. Two back-up proposals that Christman suggested didn’t appeal to most council members either.

“None of the options he presented were really viable,” County Council Chairman Dave Somers said after the meeting. “We have a structure now where a medical examiner can delegate responsibilities to an operations manager.”

By a 2-3 vote, the council failed to support any version of the restructuring plan.

On paper, that leaves the Medical Examiner’s Office’s doctors, death investigators, autopsy techs and administrative staff under the chief medical examiner. Nobody holds that job right now.

In a familiar split, Somers voted with councilmen Terry Ryan and Ken Klein against changing the office. Council members Stephanie Wright and Brian Sullivan supported a compromise that would have kept Christman in charge of death investigations and administration, while a doctor would oversee autopsies and other medical aspects of the job.

Somers said the compromise would be allowed under state law and county code, but doubted it would work. He compared it to having two chiefs running the same police department.

The vote on the Medical Examiner’s Office was the latest example of how fractious county government has become.

County Executive John Lovick’s administration hired Christman and said he was succeeding in his mission. Lovick on Wednesday rebuked the council members who voted against the restructuring plan, calling their decision “a total leadership failure.”

Lovick said his office is focused on planning for the future, while “the council majority is providing no direction on the next steps for the Medical Examiner’s Office.”

“For years and years, prior to my arrival, the Medical Examiner’s Office was plagued by problems — many of them due to a structure that simply didn’t work,” Lovick said in a statement.

The executive promised his administration would guide the office until finding a doctor with the right forensic and people skills to lead it. That search could take up to a year, he said.

Christman had concluded that the office’s existing structure puts an unfair burden on the medical examiner to oversee autopsies, death-scene investigations and administration. The chief medical examiner is frequently called upon to give court testimony and communicate with other county departments. That makes workdays of 12 or more hours routine, he said.

Christman said he isn’t angry about his ouster.

“My concern is not so much me, but my employees out here,” he said. “There’s got to be a message of hope for them.”

The staff includes several people with master’s degrees in the sciences. They worked through exhausting conditions last year to identify the remains of 43 people killed in the Oso mudslide. Later that year, they responded to the mass shooting at Marysville Pilchuck High School.

“These people do a job that very few people would want to do,” Christman said.

Employee morale suffered under the leadership of the office’s previous medical examiner, Dr. Norman Thiersch, who resigned in September. Thiersch had been named as a defendant in two employee lawsuits that the county settled.

The forensic parts of Thiersch’s job are now being done on a temporary basis by Dr. Daniel Selove. The associate medical examiner is Dr. Stanley Adams.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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