PORTLAND – The city has inspected almost twice as many restaurants so far this year as it did in all of 2012, but fewer have failed inspections, according to city records.
Meanwhile, the number of complaints about Portland restaurants has risen to 22 so far this year, up from nine last year.
The lower failure rate and the rise in consumer complaints follow a period of increased scrutiny of restaurants and more public attention to inspection results, as well as changes in staffing in the inspection program.
A full-time inspector who was known for strict standards resigned last month after being on medical leave for much of the year.
So far this year, Portland’s health inspectors have inspected 231 eating establishments, 28 of which have failed, according to records on the city’s website.
In 2012, the city inspected 128 restaurants and other eateries, and 44 failed.
That means the failure rate has dropped from 34 percent in 2012 to 12 percent so far this year.
City officials did not respond Thursday to multiple requests for comment about the trends. The city, which has become known as a national “foodie” destination, has been sensitive to the bad publicity that came with the more aggressive inspection program and resulting failure notices.
The increased frequency of inspections is no accident. Portland doubled its budget for restaurant inspections from $74,127 last year to $153,915 for the fiscal year that started July 1. The budget funds two full-time health inspectors and a part-time inspector.
One of the full-time inspectors, Michele Sturgeon, resigned Aug. 23 after being on paid medical leave from December through May.
Sturgeon, who was hired to revamp the program in 2011 and quickly became known as a strict inspector, was not allowed to talk to the media when she was a city employee. When reached Thursday, Sturgeon would not comment on the reason for her departure or whether she was paid to leave.
City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg did not return several calls for comment Wednesday and Thursday about the circumstances under which Sturgeon left.
“As a practice, the city does not comment on personnel matters,” Clegg said in a short email Thursday. “The city intends to fill the position.”
Sturgeon was hired in August 2011 as Portland’s first dedicated health inspector and was put in charge of beefing up the city’s inspection program. Previously, code enforcement officers were responsible for the program but did not make it a priority.
Portland has about 700 eateries that, by state law, must be inspected at least every two years. Before Sturgeon arrived, only 28 restaurants of the 556 that were inspected from 2008 to 2010 failed — a rate of 5 percent.
Sturgeon found that many restaurant owners were not completely knowledgeable about the Maine Food Code, so many restaurants failed her initial inspections. To help, the city started an effort to educate owners about the most common violations.
However, restaurant owners complained that Sturgeon was a stickler for the rules in the food code.
Sturgeon found herself at the center of a controversy last year when she shut down the Porthole Restaurant because of a rat infestation. While the restaurant was under a closure order, Douglas Gardner, the city’s director of health and human services, gave its owner permission to cook lobster for a wedding party on the Casablanca cruise boat.
The Portland Press Herald revealed through an examination of emails and phone interviews that there was a rush to reopen the popular waterfront restaurant.
The state, which oversees Portland’s inspection program, supported the closure of the Porthole Restaurant and criticized the city for allowing the restaurant to serve food while it was under a closure order.
The restaurant, which underwent a major renovation, has since reopened under new ownership.
The city began posting restaurant inspection reports online after the Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram published a series of articles and created an online inspections database.
The city’s database includes inspections of hospitals, schools, social clubs, theaters, soup kitchens and mobile vendors, in addition to traditional restaurants.
Publicity about the city and state inspection programs, and the online posting of inspection reports for the first time in Maine, may have contributed to the increased number of complaints about Portland restaurants.
Complaints also have increased statewide. So far this year, the state has received 379 complaints, up from 367 in all of 2012, said Lisa Roy, manager of the state’s Health Inspection Program.
Michael Russell, manager of Portland’s environmental health program, took over inspection duties while Sturgeon was on medical leave. A part-time inspector was added in July.
Russell, Gardner and Public Health Director Julianne Sullivan did not respond to requests for comment.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: