A bill introduced by Councilmember Vincent Gentile that would reform the way restaurants are fined during inspections was passed by the City Council on Wednesday, October 9.
The legislation came on the heels of a controversial letter grading system, that many business owners and elected officials found overly restrictive and burdensome, particularly financially, on restaurants.
The Council passed a total of five bills.
The first would establish an ombuds office in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), with an office, hotline and website that would handle comments of all kinds about individual restaurant inspection issues and the program in general. The office would also investigate inspection related complaints, issue guidance to restaurant owners, monitor inspection results and make recommendations to the DOHMH’s commissioner regarding ways to make the process more efficient.
The second bill – of which Gentile is the prime sponsor — would require the DOHMH to make a code of conduct pamphlet so that restaurant owners know what to expect during inspections. Inspectors would distribute the pamphlet right before an initial inspection and it would also be available on the agency’s website for viewing at all times.
The third bill would have the DOHMH create a 20-member advisory board to update the agency on the inspection program’s effect on restaurants, food safety and public health. The members would consist of restaurant owners, industry representatives, food safety experts and nutritionists that would be appointed by the mayor and council speaker, as well as the health commissioner, who would serve ex-officio.
The fourth bill would require the DOHMH to add categories of information currently provided to the public through OpenData. Specifically, the DOHMH would inform the restaurant owner as well as the public for each inspection of the type of inspection, whether it be initial, compliance, pre-permit or re-inspection; each violation cited and any other points given; the total score; date of issuance and the amount of any fine.
The fifth bill would have the DOHMH create a program by which all restaurants would be able to request an optional, ungraded inspection for educational purposes only. These inspections would not result in any fines or violations, although the agency would still be able to require a restaurant to fix any immediate public health hazards.
After the inspection, inspectors would review the results and advise the restaurant owner of any potential violations and how to correct them. A special feature of the program would allow any new restaurants to request one of these inspections to take place before their first inspection.
“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy. In order to help these businesses grow and succeed, health inspectors must work with restaurants owners rather than attempt to catch them off guard and penalize them,” said Gentile. “My bill develops an inspection code of conduct pamphlet based on standards that exist in the restaurant inspection process. As inspectors will be required to distribute the pamphlet to all restaurant owners and operators prior to an inspection, this bill ensures that everyone is aware of how inspections ought to proceed and no one is caught off guard.”