A “restaurateurs’ bill of rights” package of City Council legislation that passed last Wednesday changes the mindset of restaurant inspectors from one aimed at lining city coffers to making it easier for diners to pass without fines, bill sponsors said.
The five bills come in the wake of an onslaught of complaints that the letter grades that have come to define eateries in the public mind are unfair and arbitrary. To remove some of the tension diners have with the Department of Consumer Affairs, inspectors are now required to state online why stores received their grades, and an outside office would fight unfair fines and look out for patterns of a quota, The Epoch Times reported.
“For years now, many restaurant owners have felt under siege by a system that has become increasingly taxing, mounting both financial and regulatory burdens,” Council Speaker Christine Quinn said. “This sensible legislation will improve the lives of struggling restaurant owners — as well as those of their employees and families — while protecting the public’s health.”
“It’s not perfect,” said Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who chairs the council’s health committee, “but it will go a long way to address the concerns we have heard.”
Restaurateurs have complained about the letter grades since they were introduced by the Bloomberg administration in 2010. They assign an “A,” “B” or “C” grade based mainly on cleanliness, but critics say grades are given for other, non-food safety infractions as well.
The council legislation would create an inspector code of conduct and establish an ombudsman office to receive complaints. The ombud’s office would have the power to roll back fines and stop grade changes. They also have to report back to the City Council if they notice a pattern of quotas, a charge which was substantiated by DCI Commissioner Jonathan Mintz over the summer.
“They will be able to review it in a faster way than the typical tribunal process would,” Councilman David Greenfield, a Democrat representing Boro Park and Flatbush who successfully sponsored a related bill several months ago, told Hamodia on Tuesday.
A report released in the summer estimated that about two-thirds of fines issued over the past two fiscal years are for poor equipment maintenance or are unrelated to food safety, something which restaurant owners complain unfairly tags their eatery with an unclean label.
In total, 273,999 fines were issued in 2012 and 198,779 given this fiscal year. Of those, only about 14 percent were for categories including mice sightings and dirty or greasy food-contact surfaces.
Diner owners also say that inspectors give out heavy fines for minor offenses, without allowing for an explanation.