For years, Pima County has violated a law requiring health inspections of restaurants every six months.
The program administrator says the county has fallen short primarily because of staffing problems, but two former employees blame administrative issues.
Information provided by the county covering the period of April through September 2010 shows that more than 200 restaurants (out of thousands) inspected during that period hadn't been inspected during the previous six months.
"We have seven vacancies out of 21 budgeted (inspector) positions," points out Sharon Browning, head of the Consumer Health and Food Safety department. Interestingly, those figures are identical to what the Tucson Citizen found when it did a review of the department back in February 2008.
Browning says people frequently leave health-inspector positions for higher pay elsewhere. Some employees also depart because they have an "imagination of what the job is like, and it doesn't meet that, so they leave."
Mark Sutherland says he enjoyed his brief stint as a county health inspector. But he adds another item to the list of reasons why people depart: He thinks the division encourages its inspectors to be too lax.
Hired in September 2009, Sutherland was let go in August. "I was fired because I was shining a light on (the southside and midtown districts) I was inspecting," he says.
Sutherland cites a restaurant he inspected four days before his termination. He says it had "evidence of a serious rodent problem. There were feces everywhere."
In his written report on the restaurant, Sutherland classified the establishment as "needs improvement." Ten days later—after Sutherland had been let go—the restaurant was reinspected and given a passing grade. The new report states that the restaurant would take aggressive action to fight the rodent problem.
Prior to Sutherland's August visit, it had been more than three years since this particular restaurant was inspected. However, Browning doesn't believe that time period should be considered part of the problem.
"The rodents may have just been there since last week," she says. "(The feces) don't indicate when the rodents got there."
However, Sutherland says staff members at the restaurant told him that the rodent problem had persisted for a long time. While noting in his written report that there were "several (rodent) holes in the walls throughout the facility," he did not include the information from the restaurant staff in his report.
A week before that mousy revelation, Sutherland went to a family-owned restaurant that hadn't been inspected in four years. He found numerous violations that he calls "critical."
Some corrective steps were taken, and a different person inspected the restaurant again about two weeks after Sutherland's original visit. It passed that time, a quick turnaround that Sutherland considers "phenomenal."
About that second restaurant inspected by Sutherland, Browning says: "Many of those violations are very common. I don't know what the impact would have been if we had gone there sooner.
"Just us going to a restaurant," Browning continues, "doesn't make it change. But it is a concern if they're not inspected."
When asked about the long delays between inspections for some restaurants, Browning replies: "It's not how often you visit a place." She adds that if a person owns several restaurants, and they've done well on an inspection at one, that lends credibility to the other restaurants.
Browning says her employees use a triage approach to determine which restaurants to inspect. "It's based on (the likelihood) of making people sick," she explains. "We concentrate on the vulnerable, who may not understand or be able to articulate problems." Among these populations, Browning lists people in nursing homes.
The general population, on the other hand, is in relatively good health, according to Browning. So using the triage approach and therefore not inspecting every restaurant every six months, she believes, "works pretty well overall."
But both Sutherland and Laura Studevant, another recently terminated division employee, point out that restaurants aren't the only businesses suffering from a lack of regular inspections. They cite swimming pools, hotels and motels, bed-and-breakfast facilities and other establishments as additional examples.
They both say that there is a somewhat laissez-faire philosophy in the division. As Studevant comments: "As an inspector, your quantity of restaurants was to be two to four a day. If you did more than that, you'd be told, 'You're pushing it.'"
Sutherland says that he believes it was his aggressive approach to inspections that got him terminated. "I was warned consistently, 'Don't make waves.'"
Browning replies that Sutherland's claims do not reflect her philosophy. "That's not from me," she says. "I tell the inspectors to do their job thoroughly. If there are a lot of violations, that's OK."
About those who are terminated, Browning says: "They demonstrated an inability to do the job on a day-to-day basis."
Sutherland disputes that assertion. He says he wasn't given a job evaluation, nor was he told why he was laid off. As for Browning's comment, he said: "I've never heard that before."
Studevant also responds negatively to Browning's claim. "That's crazy," she says. "I've been doing this job for 25 years (in other places). The problem is with management."