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Biscoe grudgingly delays medical examiner project

Wednesday, October 8, 2014 by Mark Richardson

County Commissioners, pushing to build a new Travis County Medical Examiner’s office to replace the current cramped and outdated facility, ran into a speed bump in moving the process forward Tuesday.

Commissioners Court was set to approve a $2 million contract to design a new facility for the county when Commissioner Ron Davis, at the behest of the dean of the Dell Medical School, requested that the vote be postponed. In the end, the delay was granted, but not before some sharp words were exchanged.

In a letter, Dean Claiborne Johnson, M.D. asked commissioners to postpone the vote so that medical school officials could work with the county to “explore alternatives that might best serve the needs of … Travis County, its residents and the Dell Medical School.”

Travis County has had numerous problems with its medical examiner’s office. The current facility, built in 1997, has reached — and even surpassed — the physical limits of the office’s workload. County officials began looking for a new site for a 51,000 square foot facility, and voted last year to allocate $27 million toward construction of a new building. In addition, the county has been looking for a new medical examiner since Dr. David Dolinak resigned earlier this year.

Tuesday’s planned vote was to award a $2.1 million contract to county staff pick SmithgroupJJR for the project’s architectural and engineering services.

The request for a delay set off a contentious exchange between Davis and County Judge Sam Biscoe, who said that the medical school had its chance to be involved in developing the medical examiner’s office and wanted too much time.

“We negotiated with the University of Texas and the powers that be to try to get included in the Dell Medical School,” said Biscoe, clearly irritated. “Last information we got from them is that it would take five to 10 years for that to happen, if it were to happen. And we concluded that we don’t have the luxury to wait that long.”

Biscoe said he and Commissioner Margaret Gómez met with Johnson last week to discuss a number of subjects, but delaying the contract for the project was not one of them.

Davis, who has long opposed building a new medical examiner’s office, asked commissioners to agree to a week’s postponement out of respect for the dean.

“In fairness to the doctor — who is the dean of the Dell Medical School — as far as him asking for us to delay this, I think that we ought to do that,” Davis said.

“I don’t think we ought to delay this,” Biscoe shot back.” I think the letter is here late. When Dr. Johnston had two of us sitting in my conference room, he should have brought this up if it mattered to him.”

Biscoe noted that the county has been in negotiations with a variety of contractors on the project for two years and only recently was able to cut the deal it wanted. He said further delays would only undercut that process.

Davis changed tactics, reminding Biscoe that it has always been a tradition to honor a commissioner’s request to postpone any item for a week. But Biscoe refused to grant it.

“If you are asking the county judge to grant the request, it’s denied,” Biscoe said. Sensing that the other commissioners would vote with him, he challenged Davis. “If you make a motion …,” he said, his voice trailing off.

Johnson’s letter was invoked several times during the discussion, and the county’s legal department reminded the commissioners that parts of their conversation were out-of-bounds since they were not posted to discuss the letter. Assistant County Attorney Daniel Bradford said that they were to deal only with the medical examiner contract.

The admonishment did not deter Davis, who continued to complain that Biscoe was breaking with tradition and argued that waiting another week would not harm the project.

Biscoe finally tired of the argument and snapped, “A week is granted.”

There was no suggestion or discussion of further talks with the medical school.  The matter will be posted for a vote on the Oct. 14 agenda.

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