County near deadline to fix troubled Medical Examiner’s Office

EVERETT — New ideas have surfaced to retool the Snohomish County morgue, where employee burnout, lawsuits and management troubles have been a constant for years.

One proposal would place the Medical Examiner’s Office under the authority of a nonphysician director. The morgue’s deputy director, Dan Christman, has essentially fulfilled that role since being hired last year. During a presentation to the County Council on Monday, Christman argued for adopting that structure, which he said has proven to work in other states.

“The medical examiner system is going through a lot of issues nationwide,” he said. “It was not uncommon as I was reaching out to people in different offices to ask them how they are doing business … and almost every one of them told me that they were having the same problems that we have experienced here.”

There’s a catch, though. County attorneys insist that Christman’s plan would conflict with state law and existing county code, which requires a forensic pathologist — a specialized medical doctor — to oversee the office.

Given the law, it’s probably not surprising that no other medical examiner’s office in Washington uses anyone else.

“I don’t want Snohomish County being a petri dish for something that’s untested,” County Councilman Ken Klein said.

The council also could choose to split management between two separate functions. That would keep a pathologist in charge of pathology and autopsies, with a non-physician director overseeing investigators and administration. That risks confusion in the chain of command and wouldn’t fix many of the existing problems.

The County Council expects to make a decision Wednesday — and Christman’s job could be riding on it. Funding for his position is set to run out after Thursday, unless the council takes action.

“We do have a deadline at the end of the month, which is coming up rapidly,” County Council Chairman Dave Somers said.

Employees and union representatives on Monday asked the County Council to support Christman’s plan. They’re desperate to receive support for the morgue’s death investigators and technicians through stable leadership, more staffing and better training opportunities.

“There are several issues in the department that are keeping morale down and creating burnout among the employees,” said Matthew Miller, speaking on behalf of the union that represents the death investigators. “We support the director. But the department needs a vision and that’s what we’re frustrated by.”

The effects have taken a toll on employees and the public. Distraught family members and law enforcement personnel have had to wait up to four hours for an investigator to respond to a death scene, because of difficulty in staffing night shifts. One investigator told the council of working 33 full days of overtime last year. Overtime demands often force the office to deny employees’ use of accrued vacation.

Snohomish County has had a medical examiner’s office since switching from a coroner system in 1987. The operation now has a yearly budget of nearly $2.4 million and 14 employees. Two more death investigators are expected to be hired later this year, which should ease some staffing pains.

Nearly 4,400 deaths were reported to the office in 2013, the most recent year for which figures were available. The office conducted 803 investigations and 416 autopsies that year.

Over the years, the doctors appointed to run the office have often struggled to manage their employees and to keep up with the job’s administrative and forensic demands.

The problem with the current system, Christman said, is that it often requires the chief medical examiner to spend six hours on autopsies and then another six hours on administrative duties — in a single day. Add to that other regular obligations, such as testifying in court and communicating with other county departments.

“Something has to give, and these people are really over-burdened,” he said.

High turnover persisted during the tenure of forensic pathologist Dr. Norman Thiersch, who ran the office from 1998 until his resignation in September. Though respected by many for his forensic skills, Thiersch had trouble working with others. Two recent employee lawsuits against the county named him as a defendant. They were settled in 2013 and 2014, for $495,000 and $125,000, respectively.

Christman, a former Bothell police sergeant with forensics training, was hired shortly before Thiersch’s resignation to bring stability to the operation. Not three months later, a majority of the County Council nearly cut his job.

They objected to what they considered as a top-heavy management structure, where Christman joined two forensic pathologists and an operations manager.

The council finally agreed to keep Christman on as a temporary employee, but only funded the job through March. They ordered him to come up with a plan to eliminate redundancies. His deadline was later extended to the end of April.

On Monday, Christman found himself in front of the council pitching his plan for a management makeover.

Meanwhile, the county faces a pending lawsuit from the morgue’s operations manager, who claims she was unfairly passed over for Christman’s job because she’s a woman.

The lawsuit that Heather Oie filed in March in King County Superior Court also lists Deputy County Executive Mark Ericks as a defendant.

Oie alleges sex discrimination, failure to pay her the same as men in similar positions, violations of the state’s whistle-blower protection law and emotional distress. She’s asking for damages to be determined at trial. She also wants the court to order the county to correct discriminatory employment practices.

Attorneys for the county and Ericks have filed paperwork in court, denying Oie’s allegations.

Ericks, who hired Christman from the Bothell Police Department, used to work as Bothell’s police chief and assistant city manager.

Oie joined the office at the beginning of 2012 after previous jobs as an administrative assistant and manager elsewhere in county government. She says she was surprised last year to learn the county planned to hire somebody else to be the office’s deputy director, since she believed she was already performing that job.

Christman’s yearly salary is about $40,000 more than hers. His restructuring proposal includes the option of eliminating her position as operations manager in favor of an administrative assistant or fiscal analyst.

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

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