By Randy Billings, staff writer, Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram
PORTLAND, Maine – When the city’s controversial health inspector quietly resigned and stopped returning my phone calls, I knew something was fishy.
It was unusual for the health inspector to be a voice in my stories, because the city had barred her from speaking with reporters.
But when I learned she had resigned, I thought it would be a great opportunity to debrief her about her two-year stint as Portland’s first health inspector dedicated to improving the city’s restaurant inspection program. I assumed she would have a lot to say.
Prior to her arrival, restaurants inspections were scarcely conducted. As a result, many restaurant owners had relaxed their practices and were not completely knowledgeable about the state food code. That scenario put consumers at an increased risk of getting sick.
Many of the restaurants she initially inspected failed and several were closed because they were deemed imminent health hazards – including a celebrated waterfront venue that had a rat infestation.
This spot-news story touched off my series about the city’s – and the state’s – restaurant inspection program. One deep dive, published in the Maine Sunday Telegram, highlighted that consumer complaints were increasing when the state legislature reduced the requirement for annual inspections.
This was a public health issue. To help our readers make healthier decisions, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram created an online database for Portland restaurant inspections. We aspire to create a statewide database, but so far state record-keeping makes it prohibitively expensive.
Back to the restaurant inspector who resigned.
Portland is becoming an acclaimed foodie destination. So naturally, restaurant owners started complaining about how strict the new inspector was. Subsequently, city officials grew increasingly sensitive to the negative publicity its restaurants were receiving.
When I finally reached the recently resigned inspector, she said she wasn’t going to comment on her resignation. I asked if she was paid to leave and, if so, whether the city made her sign a gag order.
She replied, “I cannot confirm or deny that.” Fishy indeed.
I turned to the city and asked the same questions. Over the course of several days, many calls and emails were put off. And the few emails I received contained incomplete responses. Each had the same theme: The city does not discuss personnel matters.
So, being equally stubborn, I decided to file a public records request for documents I wasn’t even sure existed. After all, it’s not unusual for municipalities to broadly construe any personnel matter as confidential. However, some employee information, such as pay and signed contracts, typically can not be shielded.
Therefore, I asked for the details of any severance package and/or severance agreement associated with her resignation and any signed nondisclosure (a/k/a gag order) agreements. I also asked for her salary on departure and any additional payments, apart from her entitled vacation and sick time. (I also knew she had just
been on medical leave for roughly five months).
Ultimately, the city complied with my request. It had to. The sunshine law was on our side.
Not surprisingly, the documents existed. Yet I was surprised by the language in the agreement itself. In addition to being paid $18,600 to leave, the inspector agreed to a very broadly written gag order. She is: “never to disparage or speak ill of the city or any of its products, services, affiliates, officers, directors, or employees in their professional capacities.”
Translation? She had no right to speak openly about the performance of a democratically elected government.
If the city doesn’t pick-up her trash? She can’t complain. If the city doesn’t plow her street? Go pound sand. If the Public Health department is negligent in its mission to protect public health? She must keep quiet or she can return the $18,600.
I was also surprised to see that the city would not disclose the nondisclosure agreement unless required to under any relevant freedom of information laws. That made my blood boil. I had pressed city officials on several occasions over several days for this information.
When I asked for it verbally, not only did the city not provide the information, they wouldn’t even acknowledge it existed.
Apparently, the city requires a formal public records request, citing the law, before it will provide what is firmly established to be public information.
The city can look forward to more of these requests in the future.