Saint Robert voices objections to proposed food inspection ordinance
By: Darrell Todd Maurina
St. Robert City Adminstrator Alan Clark and Pulaski County Presiding Commissioner Don McCulloch discuss the proposed food inspection ordinance.
PULASKI COUNTY, Mo. (March 19, 2010) — Following two days of review and a visit by St. Robert City Administrator Alan Clark, the Pulaski County commissioners raised serious concerns Thursday about a proposed health ordinance that would regulate people who sell food in Pulaski County.
The proposed health ordinance prepared by the Pulaski County Health Department would establish a series of inspection fees and fines, along with penalties that in extreme cases could even allow the county health inspector to shut down offending food vendors.
Clark cautioned that as a representative of a city government, he wouldn’t ordinarily be questioning county activities.
“Personally I think it’s a good thing to have those inspections because you’re taking care of the public safety,” Clark said. “However, it’s really got to be tempered with good judgment and good composure because St. Robert generates 72 percent of the revenues for the entire county when it comes to eating and drinking establishments.”
Presiding Commissioner Don McCulloch had said Monday he expected to bring the ordinance up for consideration on March 25, but at Thursday’s meeting he said that won’t happen and he’ll probably postpone the issue for at least two weeks to get a legal opinion on numerous issues, including whether imposing a new fee system without a vote of the county’s residents would violate the state’s Hancock Amendment limiting tax increases without voter approval.
“We may be putting the cart before the horse,” McCulloch said. “If the lawyer comes back and says, ‘Now there’s a violation of the Hancock Amendment,’ and we go to the health department, they may not be so interested.”
Clark said there have been problems in the past when business owners who have received a business license from the city receive violation notices from Ladonna Murray, the county health department food inspector.
“Where I thought I saw a potential problem is their licensing requirements, because I’m going to be the one to get all the phone calls, and my response will be, ‘That’s all good and well, but our code official has passed that building meeting the minimum life safety issues for code requirements,’” Clark said. “We’ve had instances in the past which have hopefully been rectified. We’ve had problems with the difference between a boil advisory and a boil order. In the past when there has been nothing more than a boil advisory issued up at the city, the health department has come in and basically directed all the hotels to throw out all the water and all the food … There was a restaurant that was just happening to be opening one day, and it was a significant emotional event for that gentleman.”
County officials aren’t always receptive to recommendations from city officials voicing concerns of more urban residents, but that wasn’t an issue at Thursday’s county commission meeting.
“I’m glad you’re here today, because we had a question along the same lines,” said Presiding Commissioner Don McCulloch.
McCulloch and Commissioner Ricky Zweerink said they’ve heard concerns from constituents who wondered whether inspections would be required for Girl Scouts selling cookies, for Mennonites selling pies at food stands, or for special events such as Crocker Railroad Days.
McCulloch said he’s seeking legal advice on whether the county commission could repeal the food inspection ordinance if commissioners don’t like the way officials with the Pulaski County Health Department, which has its own elected board and isn’t answerable to the county commissioners, chooses to interpret the ordinance.
“According to this … they can do whatever they want. Once we enact this it’s out of our hands,” McCulloch said. “We have another concern, or I personally do, and this is not pointed toward the inspector now. Let’s say we get a rogue inspector who doesn’t like somebody … They have a 30-day appeal, and somebody could be closed as much as five weeks pending appeals.”
Clark said he’s receiving numerous concerns by small business owners in St. Robert, and has been telling their owners that the St. Robert Building Department inspectors don’t have the authority to inspect restaurants once they’re opened, even though new businesses can be inspection prior to opening to make sure they comply with city codes.
“We cannot go into an existing restaurant that’s been there for years without an administrative search warrant; that’s something we’re working on now,” Clark said. “I see the potential for a train wreck there if it ever got to the day where the health department was to shut down a business for a violation … My phone will ring off the hook just like y’alls phone will ring off the hook: ‘Well, I’ve got a business license here and they shut me down but I should still be able to operate.’ That’s what I’m concerned about.”
“I’m just concerned about the process,” Clark said. “I don’t think as a general rule there’s going to be big problems for the bigger chains, but if you look online at Springfield paper, there have been violations for those bigger chains. The smaller mom-and-pop outfits, the small businesses, they’re all important to me, but those small businesses, people come in there and start shutting these folks down, you’re having a major impact on these businesses and their employees which are going to be out of work and ultimately not only the city’s tax base but also the county’s tax base.”
Clark said many of the current concerns about the ordinance didn’t need to happen and could have been addressed by better communication between the health department and other governmental units.
“I do not want businesses to be held up due to bureaucracy whether it is on our part or the health department’s part,” Clark said.
“For something along these lines — and this is not to cross over and get into the commission’s business no more than you want to do that to the city council’s business — but because something like this reaches out to everybody in the county, the school districts, all the cities, I thought it would have been more appropriate for the health department to go to the city councils, go to the school boards saying, ‘This is what we’re talking about doing,’” Clark said. “I can never imagine the health department shutting down the middle school or one of the elementary schools, but God forbid, should that ever happen, I think that would have been good practice on their part had they done that. That probably would have quelled a lot of concerns because that’s not been done.”
McCulloch cautioned Clark’s concern is not an impossible scenario.
“That’s not that farfetched; between you and I, one of the biggest violations was a school,” McCulloch said.
Despite continuing concerns, the current ordinance is better than what the Pulaski County Health Department originally proposed, McCulloch said.
“We have gained some… we were opposed to the fees,” McCulloch said, noting what he considered unacceptably high fees for inspections which would have been imposed on all restaurants in the original ordinance.
The current revision of the ordinance imposes progressively higher fees on businesses that fail their inspections and have to be re-inspected, and Commissioner Ricky Zweerink said that’s good.
“Eight percent are following all the requirements. Why punish that 80 percent that are doing a good job?” Zweerink asked. “Before, they even wanted the Odd Fellows who set up once or twice a year to buy a permit from them. They’ve been doing that since like 1800-something … Now this is my opinion, if we have one event over here for one day once a year versus someone who opens their doors every day up there and feeds hundreds and hundreds of people, there’s quite a difference there.”
Clark said that could have been a problem for St. Robert as well, not just the smaller outlying communities, and noted that the St. Robert Outdoorsman’s Show had the Marine Corps League selling food.
“That would have been an event I would have been very cautious of going in there and potentially shutting someone down, not that there were any problems,” Clark said. “Especially when you’ve got the Marine Corps League running the concessions for one, and you’ve got outdoorsmen, and that probably would not have gone over well. You name it; this could materially affect any and all types of events where foods are prepared and served.”
Zweerink also said he didn’t understand why the Pulaski County Health Department’s inspectors wanted a system in place to make sure restaurants were registered for inspections.
“They say they can’t find these places, but I find it hard to believe you can’t find a restaurant in Pulaski County,” Zweerink said.
While Clark said he believes a food inspection ordinance is needed, McCulloch said he’s not yet convinced.
“The only difference I see in reading this and the state (regulations) is under this (proposed county ordinance) they can shut you down immediately,” McCulloch said. “For the state to shut them down, she (Ladonna Murray) has to come back, notify the state, then the person the state comes down and looks at it and shuts them down. They still have the capability of inspecting.”
Zweerink asked what can be done to address St. Robert’s concerns.
“The easy answer, and that was brought up to the city years ago, is the health department wanted the cities to have their own health department,” Clark said. “We just don’t have that; we’re not there yet.”
Things would be even more difficult outside St. Robert, Clark said, which has the largest budget and largest staff of any city in Pulaski County. Clark said problems could become particularly difficult if a city or county inspector doesn’t have the necessary qualifications and training to do inspections correctly.
“None of our communities around here have the staffing capabilities or the budget right now to be able to do that,” Clark said. “And then you still have the ones in the county … Going in and shutting down a business, regardless of what whether it is a restaurant or what have you, I’ve got some concerns with that if you are not thoroughly qualified, and I’m sure they are, because that’s a business I don’t really know that much about.”