The Maine Legislature may step up oversight of restaurant safety by allowing cities and towns to do their own kitchen inspections, but the effort faces strong opposition from an industry group.

The bill comes after the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram exposed weaknesses in state and local inspection programs, including less frequent inspections and less public access to inspection results than all but two other states. The paper found that lawmakers reduced the mandated frequency of inspections even as complaints about sanitation or food-borne illnesses were on the rise.

The number of restaurant-related complaints continued to rise through the fall of 2013 – according to the latest records provided by the state – as the limited staff of state inspectors worked to inspect restaurants once every two years.

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday will hold a public hearing on L.D. 1592, a bill sponsored by Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, that would allow municipal health inspectors to conduct unannounced restaurant inspections and close down eateries with glaring health violations.

Cooper submitted a similar bill last session, but it was killed by the committee. Cooper blamed the bill’s failure on state inspection officials, who “misled” the committee by saying the program was doing a “bang-up job.”

“I believe they snookered the committee,” Cooper said.

The bill faces opposition from the Maine Restaurant Association, which has successfully advocated for business-friendly rules.

“We are absolutely, 100 percent opposed to this,” said Greg Dugal, the group’s new chief executive officer.

Maine’s inspection program is thinly staffed. Only 11 people are responsible for inspecting nearly 5,000 establishments, and hundreds of other lodging and tattoo facilities, forcing inspectors to take a reactive approach, prioritizing complaints by customers who may have gotten sick.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, initially expressed “serious concerns” about the newspaper’s findings and said he’d consider increasing the frequency of inspections and adding inspectors.

STARTING POINT FOR DISCUSSION

While there is no bill that would do that, Eves spokeswoman Jodi Quintero said Cooper’s bill will likely be a starting point for discussion.

“The speaker believes Rep. Cooper’s bill addresses one aspect of the problem,” Quintero said in an email. “The bill is likely to change and evolve as the committee hears input from the public and stakeholders.”

In response to an interview request, Lisa Roy, manager of the state’s health inspection program, said it doesn’t typically comment on a bill until after the public hearing. She did not respond to a request for comment regarding Cooper’s assertion that the committee was misled.

But John Martins, the spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the restaurant inspection program, did respond. “We respectfully disagree with the sponsor’s assessment of our interactions,” he said.

The state currently allows five municipalities – Portland, South Portland, Lewiston, Auburn and Lisbon – to employ their own state-certified inspectors to inspect local restaurants under DHHS oversight.

The Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram created an online database of Portland’s restaurant inspection results. After restaurants began receiving more scrutiny, the city followed suit and became the first community in the state to begin posting inspection results and reports online. The city also increased staffing.

Last week, in his State of the City address, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan called the changes a “very important improvement.”

Except for Portland, Maine inspection results are neither made available online nor used as the basis of cleanliness grades that get posted for prospective diners. Nearly all other states provide more public access to inspection results.

Meredith Harrell, a longtime Portland restaurant patron, was one of many readers who were taken aback by the state and local restaurant inspection programs. She wants frequent inspections and publicly posted results.

“I think at a minimum restaurants ought to be inspected once a year,” said Harrell, a 40-year-old mother of one. “Every restaurant that doesn’t pass its inspection ought to be listed in a public place so people can make their own decisions.”

The state continues to struggle with its record-keeping, which can transfer poor inspection histories from closed restaurants onto restaurants that open in the same space. State officials also cannot easily produce reports capable of identifying trends.

In addition, the state could not easily comply with a public records request filed on Jan. 14 by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram for complete information about 2013 inspections.

But last September, Roy said in an email that consumer complaints have continued to rise. She said the state had received 379 complaints since the beginning of the year from people who had gotten sick or observed unsanitary practices in a restaurant.

That nine-month tally was more than the 367 complaints in all of 2012, continuing an upward trend that dates back to 2008, when the state received 115 complaints.

Although complaints are up, the number of restaurants failing their inspections or being closed based for imminent health hazards was down last year.

In 2013, 158 restaurants failed their inspections but just three were deemed imminent health hazards. That’s down from 2012, when 175 establishments failed and 16 were classified as public health hazards.

Local health inspectors were stripped of their authority to inspect restaurants in 2011 by the 125th Legislature.

Under Republican leadership, the Legislature enacted a number of pro-business, regulatory-reducing reforms, including doubling the amount of time between inspections from annually to every two years.

‘NOT WHERE WE WANT TO GO BACK TO’

Dugal said the restaurant association pushed hard to keep local – and often under-trained – health officers out of restaurant kitchens, so owners would not get confused by inconsistent rules and enforcement. “(Municipalities) had their own inspection regimes,” Dugal said.

The association says Cooper’s bill will be a step backward.

“That’s where we were before and that’s not where we want to go back to,” Dugal said.

Even though Cooper’s bill would require the state to offer minimal training to local health officers, Dugal said local health officers will not have enough expertise to decide whether a restaurant should be shut down.

Instead, the state should hire more state-certified health inspectors to increase oversight, Dugal said.

Cooper noted that the state inspection program is already inconsistent. While the state retrains its inspectors every three years, the Maine Sunday Telegram found that inspections are highly subjective and failure rates varied greatly by county.

For example, only one out of 334 inspections in Washington County between 2010 and 2012 failed, a failure rate of 0.3 percent.

But in Sagadahoc County, 25 out of 193 inspections failed. That’s a 13 percent failure rate – the highest in the state.

Cumberland County is not far behind with a failure rate of nearly 11 percent – 228 failed inspections out of 2,094.

Cooper suggested that inherent inconsistencies in the inspection process should not be used to avoid more oversight.

“We don’t have the money to add more (state) inspectors, so let’s use the people we have,” Cooper said.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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Twitter: @randybillings