Deputy M.E. to keep running county morgue, for now

EVERETT — The forensic expert tasked with turning around Snohomish County’s morgue will be staying on a little longer, even though funding for his position was cut last week.

Some past and present employees credit Dan Christman with breathing new life into the Medical Examiner’s Office, and they’re sorry to see him go. A County Council vote caused his position as deputy director to expire at the end of April. A majority of the council had turned down restructuring plans that would have kept him in place as the sole or joint director.

County Executive John Lovick’s administration believes it’s necessary to keep Christman in the job to avoid further turmoil in the office, spokeswoman Rebecca Hover said. Money for the position will come from within the office’s operating budget. It’s unclear how long the arrangement will last.

“We’re working closely with him in a temporary position,” Hover said. “That’s to help us not only with a transition plan, but with a reorganization plan. We’re working closely with him on that.”

Christman’s pay will be similar to the $131,000 salary he earned as deputy director, Hover said.

State law and county code say the Medical Examiner’s Office must be under the control of a doctor certified in pathology. Hiring for a chief medical examiner can be tough, given the medical, legal and administrative responsibilities. Candidates often have better-paying jobs than what’s offered in government service.

Dr. Norman Thiersch, the chief medical examiner since 1998, resigned in September after a series of management problems festered into lawsuits.

Christman had worked as a death investigator in the office before joining the Bothell Police Department in 1997. Over the years, he became a nationally recognized expert in blood spatters and rose to the rank of police sergeant.

Lovick’s administration had hired Christman to help fix problems that arose under Thiersch.

Christman concluded that the structure of the office is unworkable. It requires the pathologist to oversee autopsies along with several other functions: managing investigators, communicating with other county departments, making purchasing decisions and more. Court testimony is another frequent duty.

“There is just not enough time in the day for a chief medical examiner to work under those constraints,” Christman said.

Some past and present employees said the new manager was having success since taking over day-to-day management in September.

Death investigator Deb Hollis praised Christman’s integrity, knowledge and ability to build bridges. She liked the way he has communicated with elected leaders and police. He also traveled to schools to interest children and young adults in forensic science.

“In my opinion, he made a great impact on this office,” she said. “We had great leadership in Dan.”

Hollis had been so unhappy with the previous leadership that she sued the county. She settled the case in October. A year earlier, another death investigator in the office had settled a similar suit. Combined, those settlements cost taxpayers more than $600,000.

“I like coming to work and I wouldn’t have said that a couple of years ago,” Hollis said last week.

Union representatives also have spoken in favor of Christman and his restructuring ideas. Recent anonymous complaints sent to County Council members, however, suggest that not all of the employees are happy with the direction of the office.

The County Council nearly cut Christman’s position from the 2015 budget. The Medical Examiner’s Office receives nearly $2.4 million in yearly funding. There are 14 employees, with the hiring of two more death investigators expected later this year.

Some council members argued that the department was top-heavy, with two pathologists and an operations manager, in addition to Christman’s deputy director position.

As a compromise, the council agreed to fund Christman’s job through March, with its future contingent on a restructuring plan. They later extended the deadline a month.

On April 29, a 2-3 majority of the council declined to support three restructuring options that Christman presented.

Christman said his counterparts in other states reported success having non-physician directors in charge of medical examiner systems. He disputed county attorneys’ conclusion that, under state law, it would be illegal for someone who isn’t a doctor to take over the operation.

Christman was running the office the way he proposed it should be restructured.

“The tragedy of this story is that the county had it right,” he said. “They were looking at a successful model.”

A majority of the council also turned down the idea of splitting authority between the pathologist and a non-physician administrator because it would have put two bosses in charge of the same office. A third option, moving oversight of the office to the Snohomish Health District, which is run by a medical doctor, was deemed even less desirable.

Don Carman, who retired from the medical examiner’s office as a death investigator in November, called Christman “a consummate professional with the people skills to run the department.”

Carman’s 32 years in Snohomish County spanned the period before and after the switch from an elected coroner to an appointed medical examiner system.

“We have had two physicians as the department head since the creation of the department in 1987,” he said. “Both had substantial issues with the management of the department. Both were given the opportunity to resign. The sad fact is the physicians have no education or training in management, personnel issues or leadership schools.”

Death investigators meet with grieving families, who are experiencing the worst moments in their lives. In addition to helping investigate murders and accidents, the office can help identify public health problems, bringing attention to the effects of smoking, drug addiction, obesity, diabetes and communicable diseases. Carman remembered the role his office played in alerting the public to the danger of placing children’s car-safety seats in the front passenger seat.

He called the work “the investigation of death for the enhancement of life.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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