By FRANK LEWIS
PDT Staff Writer
The Portsmouth City Health Department is going back to the drawing board to fine tune its practice of dealing with businesses, specifically food handling businesses, that have been inspected and come up with issues dealing with health and safety.
The decision to tighten the process arose when several businesses went through a series of inspections and steps that are intended to rehabilitate the operation. Warnings had been issued, deadlines had come and gone, and now into 2012, the city is still dealing with at least one of the businesses.
In November 2011, the city began a series of inspections and re-inspections of Crispie Creme Donuts at the corner of Gallia and Waller streets in Portsmouth.
City Health Commissioner Chris Smith said there was a regular inspection of the facility on Nov. 2, 2011, and a follow-up inspection on Nov. 4.
“It’s a three strikes system,” Smith said. “We inspect. We give you time to correct. We say, ‘If you don’t correct by the third time, we’re going to bring you in for a hearing with the health commissioner.’ On Jan. 9, 2012, they had not cleaned up, so Crispie Creme had the date for their hearing set. We had our hearing. A follow-up letter went out with orders that within 30 days the facility needed to be completely cleaned. In 60 days, cleaning continues, and we checked the progress on repairs. Within 90 days the floor and the ceiling needs to be repaired.”
Smith said there were follow-ups Feb. 3, Feb. 29 and March 28.
“They had gotten better on their cleaning, but they still had issues. They still had repair issues. They repaired a door, but not good enough,” Smith said. “So by March 5, 2012, the decision had been made to call them in for a hearing before the Board of Health. But we had a Board of Health meeting in between, and at that point, they (board) said, ‘No, we want it to go fast.’”
Here is how that process began.
During the March 28 meeting of the Portsmouth Board of Health’s Environmental Health Director Andy Gedeon presented the board with pictures of an inspection that had been done that day at Crispie Creme, and his request to call the owner of the business in front of the board for the April meeting. Board member George L. Davis III asked who the owner is and was told it was Portsmouth City Solicitor Mike Jones.
Dr. Timothy Angel, also a member of the Board of Health, made a motion to take immediate action to suspend the license and close the facility pending further action. Smith said he had talked with Jones and the normal procedure would be to bring him in front of the Board of Health at the next meeting. But Angel argued that there were insects all over the facility, “So how can we let the business stay open?” he said. Davis said he thought the insects were only in the basement area, and Gedeon replied that at the inspection that day insects were, “all over the facility.”
Angel said the facility was in worse condition since an administrative hearing, which is the third phase of the process, and Smith requested rather than immediately shut it down, to give Jones until the following Monday to clean up the facility. Angel asked what more could be done since the instructions from a January hearing had been ignored. Davis referenced the January letter to Crispie Creme, stating the facility should be cleaned up within 30 days, and would be reinspected in 90 days. Davis said one could argue that Crispie Creme had 90 days from Jan. 26, 2012, to take care of the problem. Smith clarified that the letter states the facility should be cleaned and reinspected in 30 days, and continued cleaning and repairs should be made within 60 days. Davis expressed concerns about an immediate shut down because they hadn’t shut the facility down in February when they had warned Jones that would happen if issues were not addressed. Smith agreed that the board may have worked with the owner more than they should have.
Also during the meeting came when Angel asked if who the owner was had had any effect on what action had happened, and Smith said it’s not because the owner, because the board had treated others the same way, citing Ye Old Lantern as an example. Another important moment came when Smith claimed to have no problem with shutting down a facility, but prefers that Crispie Creme not be the first one.
“I do not show favoritism, and I have never shown favoritism,” Smith told the Times in response to the question asking for an explanation of that statement. “I did not want Crispie Creme to be the first we do an immediate shut down on when all along our procedure had been to work with the owner — educate and rehabilitate. And also we were in the middle. He (Jones) had orders pending on him for a (board) hearing.”
Angel objected, asking if the board could imagine what would happen if “the newspaper got a hold of this. The public would be angry to see the unbelievable and unacceptable condition of this facility and to know that it has been going on for this long.”
The board did not want to wait another month until the board hearing, so another inspection was done immediately.
There was a follow-up inspection of March 29 and they were sent a letter telling them that on April 2, they would be shut down if they were not in sanitary compliance. The cleaning was done, leaving only infrastructure issues.
That is what was found when Gedeon said another inspection occurred on Monday. That inspection was already scheduled before The Times began an investigation into the problems.
“What was occurring was cleaning issues and maintenance issues,” Smith said. “(by this time) What we had with Crispie Creme was a ceiling that needs repaired, a floor that needs repaired, and a conveyor belt that needs repaired.”
Smith defended the process, saying the same procedure had been used with other entities, citing Ye Old Lantern and Silver Palace. In the case of Ye Old Lantern, the owner spent the weekend cleaning up, but eventually closed down, while Smith said the Silver Palace is doing well and maintaining. That restaurant was placed on a six-month probation, made the necessary clean-ups to pass inspection and is now operating in compliance. He said there is a faster track when a business has a history of problems. When that occurs there may not be a multi-step process.”
Smith said there is a difference between critical violations and non-critical violations. He said critical violations directly lead to illness. An example is having a food service employee not wash his or her hands after going to the restroom, or food being out of temperature. He said non-critical violations are cleaning and maintenance issues, including structural problems.
“For example, a dirty floor is not going to make anyone sick, but it shows that if they’ve got a dirty floor they are not doing their procedures correctly,” Smith said. “We do not leave places open with critical violations.”
Smith said when inspectors encounter critical violations they go back the same day or the next day to re-inspect and find out if the violation has been corrected. Smith said the board is going to look over the procedures and make changes to try to shorten the process, eliminating the kinds of problems associated with the Crispie Creme issue.
“We have cooperated fully with the Health Department. We want to make sure the business is a safe and operable business, and we were working and will continue working closely with the Health Department to make sure this is a safe business,” Jones said. “There is no danger to the public. These are infrastructure issues that came up. The Health Department established some timelines to correct these problems and we have been working with the Health Department closely to correct these problems.”
Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 232, or at email@example.com.