Pitkin County: State’s reasons for inspection takeover muddled
January 27, 2019
Pitkin County officials say the state of Colorado pulled the rug out from under them when public health officials took over restaurant inspections in the county Jan. 1.
Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock called the decision "arbitrary," and said state officials asked for one thing but apparently wanted something else that was never clearly defined.
"We thought we understood the expectations and were meeting them," he said last week. "But at the end of the day, they said, 'Yeah, you met those but that's not really what we meant.'
"The goal posts, frankly, seemed to shift."
However, a state official said clear attempts were made to resolve the dispute over the amount of time and attention Pitkin County put toward inspecting restaurants for safety violations, but they were not adequate.
"We have a different view," said Jeff Lawrence, director of environmental health and sustainability for the state's Department of Public Health and Environment. "Yes, we had dialogues about the things we needed to see changed.
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"They felt they were meeting the performance metrics, and in our view they were not."
The dispute centers on the 97 restaurants within Pitkin County — including those in the Aspen Business Center, Snowmass Village, part of Basalt and Redstone — but does not include restaurants within Aspen's city limits. Those businesses are inspected by the city.
The state Public Health Department pays the county about $41,000 a year to inspect those restaurants about twice a year, said Kurt Dahl, the county's environmental health manager. Lawrence put the figure at $50,000 a year.
But in April, the state told the county it was concerned the county wasn't doing enough for the program, he said. And while Dahl disagreed with the state's assessment, the two entities instituted a "performance improvement plan" to address the state's concerns, then signed a six-month contract from July to December, Dahl said.
Between July and October, the county submitted the information the state wanted, which was confirmed by letters from the state, he said.
"Everyone said we were meeting the minimum standards," Dahl said. "That's why we're frustrated and scratching our heads."
At the end of October, Dahl said he missed a meeting with Lawrence, then rescheduled it but again had to reschedule and the meeting never occurred. He also admitted that phone calls from state officials to his staff might not have been promptly returned during that time, and that the county could have been more engaged in the inspection program by attending more state-sponsored meetings, Dahl said.
However, the next he heard, Lawrence told Karen Koenemann, the county's public health director, that he wasn't going to renew the contract, Dahl said.
Lawrence said the contract was not "terminated for cause," but was simply allowed to expire. He said he's aware that county officials were surprised by the decision, but believes the state's concerns were clear.
"We had some concerns about the quality of the work being done," he said. "We were concerned they didn't have the staffing to dedicate to the program to meet statutory requirements."
State officials felt they'd established a "qualitative baseline" county inspectors needed to meet, Lawrence said.
"The inspectors weren't meeting the baseline requirements," he said.
The change was not the result of complaints from restaurant owners, and the state knows of no public health threats, such as food-borne illnesses, that have arisen because of the county's alleged lack of focus on the program, Lawrence said.
The word "qualitative" sticks in Peacock's craw.
He said he asked what the state actually wanted if it wasn't the metrics the county appeared to meet. "The answer I got is 'qualitative,'" Peacock said. "I said, 'What is that?' and they said, 'It's really difficult to explain what qualitative means.' That's why I thought it was arbitrary.
"Either the goal posts moved, or they didn't tell us what they really wanted in the beginning."
The state plans on conducting Pitkin County restaurant inspections for the next year, Lawrence said. Pitkin County could possibly contract to do the work again in the future, he said.
"Over the next year, we'll see what their desires are," Lawrence said. "Both parties need to be comfortable with another contract."
Now it's the county's turn to monitor the state's efforts, Peacock and Dahl said.
The county will now keep tabs on inspections, and if the state can adequately police the county's restaurants, then more power to them, they said. The county subsidizes the program anyway, and can find other uses for that money, they said.
However, both Peacock and Dahl expressed doubt that the state will do any better than the county. Inspectors must travel from Denver, tend to be more "authoritative" than local inspectors and don't seem to be aware of the seasonal nature of many county restaurants, Dahl said.
"Frankly, we're skeptical," Peacock said. "But we'll monitor it and if they can (conduct adequate inspections) then maybe everybody's better off."