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Pierce County hires new medical examiner in first step toward remaking the embattled office

Dr. Karen Cline-Parhamovich stands in the autopsy suite at the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office in Tacoma on May 11, 2020. She starts work as the new chief medical examiner Monday.
Parker Miles Blohm
Dr. Karen Cline-Parhamovich stands in the autopsy suite at the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office in Tacoma on May 11, 2020. She starts work as the new chief medical examiner Monday.

Pierce County is finally getting a new medical examiner, after nearly a year and a half of turmoil and uncertainty.

The County Council confirmed Dr. Karen Cline-Parhamovich in a unanimous vote Tuesday. Cline attended the meeting remotely after recently relocating here from New Mexico, where she has served as interim chief medical investigator for the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator. She begins work in Pierce County on Monday. 

“I feel incredibly blessed to be in this position and I’m excited to start,” Cline told KNKX Public Radio in an interview ahead of the vote.

Ahead of Cline's confirmation Tuesday, County Executive Bruce Dammeier stressed the importance of a functional Medical Examiner's Office, especially in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. “Pierce County depends on a highly professional, highly stable, highly sustainable Medical Examiner’s Office,” Dammeier said.

The first items on Cline’s to-do list: evaluating the strengths of her staff and looking at ways to build external relationships.

“The health department's right across the street,” Cline said. “There's so much that the Medical Examiner's Office can provide to the community, other than performing autopsies. And I want to explore what those (opportunities) are.”

Cline, the county’s top-paid employee at $325,000, has her work cut out for her. 

Even before it was thrust onto the front lines of a global pandemic, the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office faced turbulence. Since January 2019, the office has experienced mounting complaints against Cline’s predecessor, Dr. Thomas Clark. Those sparked subsequent investigations and more than $700,000 in settlement agreements with the office’s top two officials, including Clark. 

The controversy culminated in a proposal from the county executive for increased spending in the department to “restructure and remake” the office and restore public confidence. 

A supplemental budget, also approved by the council Tuesday in a 5-2 vote, adds nearly $727,000 in new spending to the office.

The changes cover two new, permanent positions and a temporary “medical examiner consultant.” The latter was created so the outgoing medical examiner can remain on call for consultation through the end of this year, as needed.

Tuesday’s staffing additions come after the County Council approved three new positions in fall 2019, for a net gain of six positions in the department over the next two years. Among them is a third forensic pathologist, who will assist with performing autopsies.

Cline says the boost in resources is vital “in order to run the office the way that it needs to be run, and to give the citizens the level of services that they deserve.”

Council members Marty Campbell and Derek Young voted against the proposal, citing a lack of clarity and economic uncertainty given the current public health crisis.

The office’s new second-in-command, Dr. Timothy Williams, was appointed deputy medical examiner several weeks ago. It’s a retooled position, with additional duties aimed at alleviating the chief’s workload, said county spokeswoman Libby Catalinich.

Even before Tuesday's confirmation, Cline had worked with Williams closely to develop the supplemental budget proposal and benchmarks for the office she's joining soon. 

“We have a great duo in the Cline-Williams team,” Dammeier said during Tuesday’s meeting. 

Williams, who previously worked for King County, replaces former Associate Medical Examiner Megan Quinn, who also reached a settlement agreement with Pierce County. 

After being placed on leave for alleged “insubordination,” Quinn accused the county of retaliating against her for filing complaints against her boss. The county has denied those accusations.  

Cline is the second person to accept the chief medical examiner position in recent months. In February, another forensic pathologist suddenly withdrew from consideration, just as council members prepared to confirm him. It’s unclear why he decided to back out at the last minute; he didn’t return calls seeking comment. 

But the county acted fast, immediately offering the position to Cline.

Catalinich says Cline wasn’t the county’s second choice — she was another first choice, part of a highly qualified pool of forensic pathologists identified in a targeted nationwide recruiting effort late last year.

Council member Derek Young said he is impressed with Cline's qualifications.

“I’m gald you’re here," he said. "I’m hoping we can finally bring some stability to the Medical Examiner’s Office.”

Cline is tasked with rebuilding confidence in an office that’s been fraught with controversy, while also ushering death investigations during an unprecedented public health crisis. 

She told KNKX that she needs more time to learn exactly how the pandemic will affect day-to-day operations in the office. In her previous role, personal protective equipment was in short supply. She also says it’s unclear how, if at all, the coronavirus will affect the number of autopsies performed in the office. 

“That's something I'm going to be looking at,” Cline said.

I recognize that for people who have to interact with my office that it is the worst day of their life. And I want to be there ... to begin the process of healing.

But perhaps the most important step toward regaining public trust will come from the public-facing aspects of Cline’s job. Her predecessor faced criticism for rarely communicating with family members of the decedents in his care.

Cline plans to approach those situations differently.

She said she plans to have those conversations, and will encourage death investigators to do the same. She stressed the need to listen and respond to concerns. 

“I recognize that for people who have to interact with my office that it is the worst day of their life,” she said. “And I want to be there ... to begin the process of healing.”

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.