Public's bite to know

Mar 31, 1999 at 12:00 am

Oakland County Commissioner Tim Melton says he will keep pushing to require restaurants to post local health department inspection scores if those scores fall below 70 on a 100-point scale.

The resolution, which Melton co-authored with Commissioner Eric Coleman, was introduced in February and voted down by the county’s general government committee March 22.

Although proposals that fail in committee generally don’t go before the full board, Melton, a Democrat new to the mostly Republican board this year, says he plans to take his resolution to the board in April.

"We’re looking out for the little guy here," Melton says. "We eat in these restaurants. We’d like to know how clean they are."

County officials say going before the full board with a measure that has already failed in committee would require the votes of 13 of the 25 commissioners.

Meanwhile, Coleman says, county health officials are studying his separate proposal that would require food service workers in the county to wear disposable gloves and head coverings while handling food.

Melton says politicians let business interests win out over what’s best for consumers. Michigan Restaurant Association officials lobbied against the proposal before the committee voted it down along party lines. Six Republicans opposed the measure, which was favored by three Democrats.

"If you get diarrhea, you can blame it on the Republicans," says Commissioner Ruel McPherson, a committee Democrat.

Three Republican commissioners who opposed the resolution said that their votes were based on practical considerations. For one thing, says Republican Commissioner John Garfield, the Michigan Department of Agriculture is drafting legislation that would overhaul the state’s food code and likely do away with the numeric scoring system, replacing it with a narrative system.

Critics of the numeric system– including the MRA, several commissioners, restaurant owners and Oakland County health officials– say the system doesn’t accurately reflect a restaurant’s level of safety or cleanliness. For example, a restaurant scoring 95 might have lost five points for an electrical violation that caused food to spoil in its refrigerators, while a restaurant scoring below 70 might have been docked for less dangerous violations such as having chipped tiles or storing produce crates on a clean floor as opposed to on shelves.

Moreover, say critics, the scoring system does not take into account the size and complexity of a restaurant.

Although the county can close down any restaurant found to constitute an immediate health threat, Melton says the county is "dragging its feet" on closing restaurants with multiple violations that are not considered immediate threats but nevertheless could be dangerous. Some of these could include critical violations such as bug or rodent infestations, he says.

Oakland County health officials did not return calls from the Metro Times.

Commissioner Nancy Dingeldey, who voted against the posting resolution, says the county can revoke the licenses of restaurants that refuse to correct critical violations, such as bug or rodent infestations, within a prescribed period.

However, Dingeldey, who sits on the county’s sanitation board, admits that in some cases restaurants have been able to legally maneuver to remain open for years while potentially serious violations persist.

Melton says the inspection scores are already public information and can be obtained from the health department, but most people don’t know that.

"We ought to know when we walk into those restaurants," Melton says.