June 24, 2008

Grand Jury Wants Web Site Reporting Health Inspections As Soon As Possible

By Richard Halstead, The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.

Jun. 24--The Marin County Civil Grand Jury wants the county to move swiftly to post the results of restaurant health inspections on the Web and to consider a health-inspection rating system.

In addition, the grand jury called on the county to enforce more aggressively a state law that requires each restaurant owner in Marin to keep a copy of its latest health-inspection report on site for customers to peruse.

The law also requires restaurant owners to post a sign prominently near their restaurants' entrance informing customers of the availability of this report.

In its findings, the grand jury acknowledges that the county has recently set the goal of providing a Web site "with at least some data by this fall." It notes, however, that years of delays preceded that action.

According to the report, "One county supervisor told the grand jury of calls and e-mails from the public indicating a genuine health and safety concern because comprehensive information is not readily available."

The grand jury also urges the county to contract with the consulting firm that is assisting with the Web site to upgrade its health-inspection database management. The jury said the same system being used for the Web site can be harnessed to allow inspectors to enter inspection details electronically into the database on site and to keep track of which restaurants are due to be inspected.

The jury noted that a commercial Web site, MoreMarin.com, has begun posting some county health-inspection

reports. Bill Scholtz of Mill Valley, who oversees the site's production, said it is difficult to determine from the county's current records how often reinspections are conducted and when, or even if, violations have been remedied.

"In general, the inspectors do a really good job," Scholtz said. "But the data collection is very weak."

Phil Smith, who oversees the county's Environmental Health Services Division that inspects Marin's restaurants, said data collections procedures have recently been improved. Nevertheless, Smith said he agrees with the grand jury about the need to upgrade database management.

"We will be moving to implement the full digital health department system," Smith said.

The report states that "equal in intensity to the public demand for a consumer Web site has been the cry that places that serve food in Marin should be rated -- A, B, or C, for example." Los Angeles and Sacramento both have such systems.

The grand jury reported that county staff who would be responsible for rating the restaurants expressed reservations about such an approach. Health officials fear that restaurant owners seeking to improve their ratings will insist on more frequent reinspections. This could result in the county needing to hire more inspectors.

Smith told the grand jury that a rating system could increase inspection costs by about 25 percent. Because nearly all of the division's funding comes from fees, food establishments would foot the bill. Smith said he will be assembling information for supervisors so they can decide by the middle of next year whether to initiate a rating system.

According to the grand jury's report, the Community Development Agency, which includes environmental health services, prefers the idea of giving an "award of excellence" to restaurants that manage to avoid a violation for a certain length of time. Monterey, Sonoma and Santa Cruz counties have adopted this approach.

Despite the state law requiring inspection reports be available on site, the jury reported, "Many establishments and often inspectors themselves simply ignore the mandate." The jury added, "In fact, the sign is not even posted in the cafeteria of the Marin County Civic Center, located right across the corridor from the Environmental Health Services office."

The grand jury recommends that the county immediately notify all food establishments that prominent display of the required sign at all entrances will be strictly enforced.

Contact Richard Halstead via e-mail at [email protected]


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