The Utah Restaurant Association believes member restaurants are being improperly punished and even closed for easily corrected health violations, then the information is "blasted in front of the public" by being posted on the Salt Lake City-County Health Department Web page.
Melva Sine, executive director of the 3,000-restaurant association, on Thursday asked members of the Salt Lake City-County Board of Health, which sets policy for the department, to put a moratorium on use of the Web page until clear policy can be set. She said many of the enforcement actions recently taken against restaurants amount to "police action."
The board could not vote on a moratorium Thursday because the issue was not on the agenda. But during a sometimes heated discussion, several members expressed support of a 90-day moratorium to review allegations about the way violations were being posted. And they asked a committee to examine the issue, including legal considerations and how other areas handle posting of violations.The Web page (http://www.slchealth.org) has listed "critical violations" by restaurants since March 5. The information was already available in manual form at the environmental health office, 1954 E. Fort Union Blvd. But it has never before been accessible by computer users.
Association attorney Wesley F. Sine sent a letter to Sam Granato, chairman of the board of health, expressing concern. It asked the board to enact the moratorium and restrict the health department's ability to shut down restaurants by suspending their permits.
Melva Sine said the postings "step on the constitutional rights" of the restaurant owners and complained there is no clear policy guiding the posting.
She said restaurant owners normally were given time to fix violations, but that's not happening. Instead, restaurants are being closed for minor violations that "I protest is not imminent and public health danger."
In other areas, Melva Sine said, restaurants are given 10 days to fix problems before enforcements are posted on the Web. Here, she said, "the restaurant is tried, convicted and closed. What about rights of appeal? The appeal process is limited if it exists at all. It's an abuse of police authority, which is not what an inspection was meant to be."
There is precedent for posting violation information on the Internet, according to health department executive director Dr. Thomas Schlenker, who defended the Web postings as a valuable tool for the public. Tennessee and North Carolina are among states where such information is available, he said. And the federal Food and Drug Administration "regularly" posts notices of violations on its Web site.
Schlenker called Melva Sine's suggestion that restaurants were closed for trivial reasons "patently false" and complained that the board had not yet heard a rebuttal or comment from the health department on the issue.
Board member Alan E. Seegrist was vocal in calling for the moratorium and said he would "prefer the media stop accompanying inspectors" until the issue is resolved.
Board member Thomas Guinney of Gastronomy Restaurants also asked that the Web page be removed for at least 90 days while board members examine "successful policy" from other areas.
Jana Carlson-Kettering, spokeswoman for the department, said fewer than 10 restaurant enforcements have been posted on the Web page and such postings are removed within seven days if the action is cleared.
She added that she has personally received hundreds of e-mail messages from the public supporting posting of the enforcement actions. The Web page has had about 11,000 "hits" since it was posted last month.