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Reading’s Lack of Health Code Fines Raises Questions

Mar 04, 2019 08:02AM ● By Lisa Redmond

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READING – Since 2016, no food establishment in the town has been fined for health code violations by the Reading Health Department, according to Health Department data.

Good news, right?

Select Board Chairman Andrew Friedmann placed an item about health code violations on the selectmen’s Feb. 26 meeting agenda. But at the meeting, Friedmann tried to pull it off the agenda triggering a concern from Select member Barry Berman that the topic be discussed in the name of transparency.

Friedmann told the board he intended to pull the item off the agenda after he attended the Feb. 25 Board of Health meeting and asked questions about the lack of health code fines. He said he was satisfied with the answers.

But Berman said such an inquiry raises the question: “Is it safe to eat in Reading?’’

Selectman John R. Halsey said he received “a couple of calls’’ about this. “Is there something wrong?’’ he asked.

Friedmann explained that he became aware of a Freedom of Information Act request filed by health board member Emmy Dove, who requested data about the number of health code fines issued by the Health department.

The data showed that between 2009 and 2015 the Health Department issued an average of about 35 health code fines per year (excluding the violations of the now closed Romano’s Macaroni Grill). No fines have been issued by the Health Department since 2016, Friedmann said.

Going from 35 per year to zero, Friedmann said, the discrepancy “caught my eye and gave me cause for concern.’’

The protocol for the town’s health agent is to inspect each food establishment annually. Health Agent Laura Vlasuk has a schedule of inspections, which she reports to the Board of Health monthly.

If violations are found in an establishment and they are not corrected, Vlasuk issues fines based on the violation. If the violations remain uncorrected, the owner of the establishment can be called before the Board of Selectmen under the threat of pulling the business’ permit to operate in town.

At the Feb. 25 Board of Health meeting, Vlasuk said food establishments in Reading have been compliant for several years, correcting any violations and eliminating the need to issue fines.

“I’ve had no problems,’’ she told Friedmann and the Board of Health.

Dove explained that as the newest member of the health board, she heard the Select Board state in December that there were no real violations in town. “It struck me as odd,’’ she said, so she filed a FOIA request with the Town Clerk.

While the no-fines questions has been answered, Friedmann and Dove suggested more transparency in the way the public can access such data. But Board of Health Chairman Kevin Sexton said the board needs to be careful what information is made public.

Sexton admits the “end game’’ is public health, but prematurely publishing of violations could hurt a business.

And Sexton noted he doesn’t want to “micro manage this.’’ He stressed that Vlasuk is “doing her job’ and that Friedmann seems to be “a little bit against’’ the health agent.

Friedmann responded, “I’m not creating a lynch mob…I don’t want my concerns seen as criticism.’’ But as a town official, he has “an obligation’’ to suggest changes if there is an issue.

It is in the public’s best interest to know if a food establishment had a critical violation that was not fixed.

Sexton agreed that having data is best. On this issue, he said, “We backed into it rather than go face forward.’’

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