Auditor says restaurant inspector issues don’t put public at risk

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A new 17-page investigative report by the city auditor “did not find sufficient evidence” to support the allegation of improper inspections of Austin restaurants or that health officers’ misuse of time has put the public at risk.

The report did document that the capitol city of Texas wasted money because of “grossly inefficient practices and procedures” inside Austin Public Health Department’s Environmental Services Division. Three environmental health officers misspent city time and two attempted to cover it up on inspection reports.

In January, the city auditor received a complaint about seven environmental health officers misusing city resources without being held accountable by their supervisors. The allegation came from a person who claimed restaurants were going without proper inspections and the public was at risk.

The city auditor found the public in Austin is not at risk. In the course of the investigation, the auditor employed a registered professional sanitarian to conduct re-inspections of 13 food establishments. Environmental health officers suspected of misuse of city resources did the original reviews.

The city auditors re-inspections, however, “did not find any evidence that Austin Public Health inspectors have allowed dangerous or unsanitary establishments to remain in operation.”

Inadequate practices and procedures, including the lack of a structured work plan for health officers, limited supervisory review of inspection activity, and insufficient supervision of personnel in the field help create an environment for wasting city resources, according to the report.

The health officers get a list of restaurants to inspect each day and week, but they don’t have to report in before or after they do an inspection. The auditor said the “limited oversight” makes for the time wasting. Investigators showed health officers shopping and sleeping in their cars during times they claimed to be doing inspections. Another was found to be spending 90 minutes each morning working out at a local gym.

Austin’s local code defines waste as “grossly inefficient or uneconomical use of a city asset or resource” and as “unnecessary incurring of costs to the city as the result of grossly inefficient practice, system, or control.”

The allegation that sparked the probe involved seven environmental health officers. The auditor’s report specifically names the three officers found to be misusing city resources.

The health inspector found at a local gym while she was supposed to be working recorded fake times on inspection reports. She told the city auditor that supervisors who are no longer with the city had told her to “slow down.” When she began in 2010 she was doing 15 to 18 restaurants a week.

Currently, officers are expected to do 10 to 12 inspections per week.

Another officer, spotted on two separate occasions resting in her car or talking on the phone for periods of more than 90 minutes, admitted she might have taken a nap once during working hours.

The third officer went shopping during work hours and left her post to head home before the 5:30 p.m. quitting time. Surveillance also documented her changing her clothes to work out in a parking lot of a local movie theater during her work day. She said she was dealing with “several stressors.”

The city auditor’s re-inspections of restaurants checked out by these officers, however, did not change much.

“On average, the scores of our re-inspections were within four points of the original inspection score, and we do not have reason to believe that the officers we observed have put public health at risk by allowing dangerous or unsanitary restaurants to remain in operation,” the auditor reported.

The auditor also tracked GPS data for three inspectors using city vehicles and found the time between inspections was 60 to 100 minutes. The report suggests the data is evidence of violating certain city policies, such as using city vehicles for private purposes.

The report suggests the problem is as much filling time as wasting it. As one officer quoted by the auditor explained:

“If you only have to do 2-3 inspections in an 8-hour day, to hit your 10-12 weekly inspection number, what the hell are you doing all day? I’ve been asking that since I started only to hear ‘just work your 8-hour day.’ I was told once to do a compliance visit. You can’t just make up bogus compliance visits at the last minute because there are 45 minutes to fill. I’ve been told to sit in my car or a coffee shop and read my T-FER (Texas Food Establishment Rules). I took that as code for just tell me you’re doing that and I’ll be happy.”

Health inspectors named in the report made statements made their own statements. The woman who went to the gym in the morning said she had permission to take her lunch break at that time. She inspects numerous schools, hospitals, and fraternity houses and prefers to do her visits when those facilities are the busiest.

The one charged with taking a nap said that has only happened once and she does all her office work in her car. The third addressed the many difficulties of working from a car, especially in Austin’s frequent hot weather. She also said the exercise she was doing was encouraged by the city and occurred on her lunch break.

Austin Public Health’s Interim Director Stephanie Hayden responded to the City Auditor’s Office, saying technology would resolve the problems. She said the department would “take appropriate action” and that she believes new inspection software “will address a large number of the issues raised in the audit report findings. …”

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