National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C. Vol. 31, No. 5 * March 15, 1999
Civic Engagement :Lessons From the Medical Examiner
Other than the "Mayor of Munchkin City, in the county of the land called Oz," the only other public official featured in "The Wizard of Oz" was, not surprisingly, the coroner. He performed an autopsy and ruled that the Wicked Witch of the East was " not merely dead, but really, most sincerely dead."
The medical examiner or coroner is one of the oldest and, historically, most important positions in public administration. Legal determinations of cause of death are at the heart of Common Law for both criminal cases and civil matters, such as property inheritance.
Most people equate the "MEs" office with autopsies, distasteful work most of us would avoid at crime scenes, expert testimony, the "Quincy" TV program, and a focus on the dead. However, that can be far from the whole picture.
The 21st century medical examiner is, or certainly should be, part of the strategic county team. The work of Joshua Perper, M.D. doctor and lawyer, as many MEs are offers striking examples of this "focus on the living" and lessons for all of us in public administration about "redefinition" and thinking outside of the box.
Perper, like all of us, is concerned about drunk driving. He developed a program requiring first offenders to report to the medical examiners office as part of their sentencing. A seminar led by himself or other pathologists focuses on the actual impacts (so to speak) of irresponsibility associated with driving and is combined with a tour of the facility, viewing of photos drawn from case files, and other information that should never be forgotten by the offenders.
The county courts agree that this preventive, educational role is important and innovative enough to make it a mandatory part of sentencing.
Next, he prepared and released a report on childrens drowning deaths in the county, noting that many could have been avoided by basic swimming skills. That has led to county policy to create an Every Child a Swimmer Program in cooperation with the school board. The concept is to make basic swimming and water safety a requirement for school graduation.
The medical examiner provides information to all county employees regularly via e-mail about medical problems, disease effects and prevention measures. A finding in the death of a young person who fell off a horse led to a widespread discussion of helmet requirements for horseback riding. Finally, teen pregnancy in the county is also being studied and public awareness and public policy will likely be changed for the better.
If the ME can play such a policy development and educational role, why shouldnt every other county agency? Why cant the public works engineering staff or environmental professionals spend time with students in an "adopt a class" concept showing them practical career opportunities and making physics and science in general come alive for them?
Two environmental engineering professionals named Willie Horton and Gary Fox did just that. The result was that the lives of students from so called inner city high schools have been turned around.
Court employees, county attorneys, budget professionals, public safety professionals, certainly human resource professionals and many others could make a big difference in the lives of many young people with similar approaches.
The concepts can include internships, such as Broward Countys award winning Public Service Internship Program, Adopt a Class or School Club programs, in which an agency develops a special relationship with one class in a school over a school year, individual youth motivator mentoring programs, or summer work/study activities the possibilities are endless and the opportunities unbounded.
The HR Doctor strongly recommends that county professionals in every field work with the school boards throughout America and establish a "town/gown" relationship. Think outside the box with the HR Doctor for a moment
There are about 3,068 counties in America, each containing dozens, sometimes scores, of service agencies. Imagine if each agency created a program with only one school or one class. The result would be great for the students, the energized county employees participating, our communities and our country. Its workable. It wont cost much, and it will deliver impressive results. Arent those the characteristics of any successful program?
Contact the HR Doctor for more information on these types of programs
or to discuss a "house call" by the HR Doctor to your
(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him
Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County,