Pierce County is finally getting a new medical examiner — in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, no less — after nearly 18 months of turmoil and uncertainty at the office.

On May 12, the Pierce County Council unanimously confirmed Dr. Karen Cline-Parhamovich. She was announced as the next medical examiner in January after the initial choice withdrew his application days before his confirmation.

Cline-Parhamovich faces the daunting task of rebuilding confidence in an office rocked by scandal, while also conducting death investigations during an unprecedented public health crisis.

Cline-Parhamovich attended the council meeting remotely from Tacoma after recently relocating from New Mexico, where she served as head of the Office of the Medical Investigator for New Mexico.

“I am very excited to be here,” she told the council. “I am very excited to join Pierce County and want to ensure that all of the citizens of Pierce County receive high-quality, consistent and independent death investigations that meet or exceed national standards.”

The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office has been marred in controversy since January 2019 in the form of mounting complaints against Cline’s predecessor, Dr. Thomas Clark. Those complaints sparked subsequent investigations, ultimately leading to more than $700,000 in settlement agreements with the office’s top two officials, including Clark.

A supplemental budget, Proposal No. 2020-52, was also approved by the council in a 5-2 vote, adding nearly $727,000 in new spending to the office. Council members Derek Young and Marty Campbell voted against the supplemental budget.

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

These staffing additions come after the council approved three new positions in fall 2019, for a net gain of six positions in the department over the next two years, including a third forensic pathologist to assist with performing autopsies.

Young expressed doubt about approving more positions during the coronavirus pandemic, noting if the federal government does not reimburse local governments for money spent in response to the virus, there could be disastrous consequences.

“In a time like this, we need to take a much larger view of our budget,” he said. “We are going to cut way to the bone.”

Campbell indicated similar concerns, saying the county lost out on the initial medical examiner candidate due to reluctance to fund needed positions within the office.

“We need to get these reports out in a timely, dignified, safe manner,” he said.

Before New Mexico, Cline-Parhamovich was Tennessee’s chief medical examiner and the director of Division of Forensic Pathology at East Tennessee State University Quillen College of Medicine. She graduated from Kent State University with a bachelor’s degree in general studies and pre-medicine. She has a degree in doctor of osteopathic medicine from Ohio University.