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County Board of Health delays publication of inspection reports

By Dan Petrella/CU-CitizenAccess -- Over the past four years, health inspectors failed one of out 10 restaurants, but the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District has never informed the public of those failures.

On Tuesday night, members of the Champaign County Board of Health said they believe the public should have easier access to information about inspections of restaurants. But they failed to take immediate action, saying they wanted to wait for a national group to meet in Indianapolis next year and weigh in on the issue.

The Conference for Food Protection will hold its biennial meeting in April, and board members said they want to wait for its recommendations on what is the most effective way to communicate inspection scores to the public.

If the board does approve new requirements, they would require County Board approval before being enacted.

County Board member Stan James, who also sits on the Board of Health, said information about restaurant inspections should accessible to the people who eat in restaurants.

“You know, all of this is done with taxpayers’ money,” the Rantoul Republican said. “I don’t think people really know what all is being done until it comes time to pay their property tax bill and they complain, but it if is, we ought to be open about it.”

James also supported waiting until after the conference makes its recommendations.

The discussion Tuesday followed a report last week by CU-CitizenAccess.org that showed the health district – unlike other counties and cities in Illinois and across the nation – doesn’t make inspection results easily available to the public.

To read the complete story and view an interactive map of restaurants that have failed inspections, click here.

Meanwhile, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District Board of Health met Monday but did not discuss the issue, Carol Elliott, the board’s chairwoman, said. The board had other pressing issues already on its agenda, she said.

The public health district conducts restaurant inspections and provides other services outside Champaign-Urbana on behalf of the county Board of Health. Services in the cities are overseen by Elliott’s separate three-member board.

For the past three years, public health district officials have said they intend to post inspection reports on a website, but they still have not done so, even though they say it would be important information to the public.

Officials also want to redesign restaurant health permits to make them larger and make the health district’s contact information more visible to customers. Those changes wouldn’t come until next year at the earliest, they said.

Jim Roberts, who heads the inspection program for the district, said he fully supports making inspection results public. But at Tuesday’s meeting, Roberts said the board should wait to hear the results of the Indianapolis meeting in April.

“They have an accumulated knowledge of experts,” Roberts told the board. “When they have the recommendations, we could gather together our community partners … we might need to tweak what the recommendations are to fit our own community’s needs, but I think at that time, we gather together and develop one uniform system.”

But other Illinois counties such as McLean, Macon, Sangamon and Vermillion have been making inspection results public for years.

McLean County health officials have said the public appreciates having easy access to health inspections and that it is the most popular feature on their website.

Roberts and Julie Pryde, the district’s public health administrator, have said over the past three years that publication of results will be made within a few months, but each deadline has passed without action.

And after being questioned about the lack of action, Roberts and Pryde recently said again they hope to begin posting complete reports online in January. Those reports come from more than 1,300 restaurant inspections conducted each year.

On Tuesday, the county Board of Health considered different ways of making inspection information available in restaurants, but they did not decide which approach they favor.

Possibilities include posting complete reports in restaurants, creating a new document to shows a restaurant’s performance on inspections over time or using a letter-grade system similar the one used in Vermilion County and elsewhere.

Roberts and Pryde have said they think the information should be public, but oppose the idea of posting letter grades or numeric scores that reflect only a restaurant’s most recent inspection because they don’t believe such systems provide enough information.
 

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