Operation Top Secret

Has your favorite restaurant been skewered? Just try to find out.

Three years ago, Cleveland Mayor Michael White issued a warning to restaurants and groceries who dared sell spoiled food in the city of Cleveland. His inspectors would find them, drag them to court, fine them, and shut them down. Dirty restaurants, he vowed, were dead meat.

"If you really want to get somebody's attention, put your hands on their wallet and you'll get their attention real quick," White told The Plain Dealer in 1997.

The mayor certainly got the attention he ordered, as well as a side dish of cold, hard cash. Since the kickoff of Operation Top Quality in January 1997, the city has prosecuted 284 food establishments for violating the health code, says Michele Whitlow, director of public health. In 1997 and 1998, Municipal Housing Court issued food fines totaling $261,980, of which $79,560 was collected and deposited into the city's general operating fund.

"We definitely take this very seriously," Whitlow says. "It's a very aggressive approach."

It's also a very odd and secretive approach, which has drawn criticism for both its modus operandi and its consumer unfriendliness. Randy Hertzer, public information officer with the Ohio Department of Health, knows of no other public health department besides Cleveland's that actually charges restaurant owners with criminal offenses and takes them to court if they don't correct health code violations. And what good does it do to serve up hefty fines when consumers remain starved for information that could protect their health?

Diners who want to check on their favorite suburban restaurants need only visit the Cuyahoga County Board of Health offices in Playhouse Square (unless the restaurants are in Lakewood or Shaker Heights, which run their own health inspections). The county files are open for public inspection during business hours. No such luck if your favorite restaurant happens to be in the city, however. To obtain an inspection report of a Cleveland restaurant, you need to file an information request with the health department, which must then be approved by the city's law department. The whole process takes more time and effort than local media (whose requests must be filed with the mayor's press office instead) are often willing to spend, let alone your average Clevelander.

"We get a lot of complaints about Cleveland," Hertzer says. "We say, if you don't think the Cleveland health department is providing the information in a reasonable amount of time, sue them."

Whitlow seems surprised to hear that there have been complaints about access to health inspection reports. "Inspections are available for any restaurant in Cleveland," she says. "You just have to make a record request. It's not difficult."

As evidence of the health department's commitment to consumer awareness, Whitlow points to the city's Operation Top Quality Information phone line (216-420-TOPP). Callers can find out which restaurants have been convicted in Municipal Housing Court over the last six months, along with the amounts of the fines set by the court or suspended.

Callers to the hotline this week, for example, learned that Chinatown II at 2051 West 25th Street was fined $10,000, Han Cuisine at 3040 St. Clair was fined $12,500, and Max & Erma's at 1106 Old River Road was fined $3,000. But it's impossible to tell why the restaurants were fined and, more importantly, whether the violations have been corrected. Was the problem leaky plumbing or roaches in the soup? Have the owners cleaned up their act? Has anybody been back to check? It's clear the city has gotten its mitts on restaurateurs' wallets, but the hotline isn't revealing much else.

"It doesn't make sense," says Charles Blosser, president of the Ohio Restaurant Association, who just learned of the hotline last week. "It doesn't say what they did wrong. Who knows what they're being fined for? It sounds like a Mickey Mouse operation to me."

Consumers who don't want to go through the trouble of filing a public information request with the city can try to get information about violators directly through Municipal Housing Court. But this is no small task either. Because the cases stem from criminal charges levied against restaurant owners, you can't look up court files by the restaurant's name or address--the only information provided on the hotline. You could try calling the restaurants for owners' names, though you should be prepared to deal with employees who don't speak English or chain restaurants where the employees profess not to know the names of their corporate owners.

If you do succeed in locating the files in the Municipal Court, you will find information about specific code violations and the fines restaurant owners were ordered to pay--but no information about whether the violations were corrected.

All this secrecy has fueled questions about the fairness of Cleveland's anomalous system and the rationale behind it. Some restaurant owners who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution claim that city inspectors selectively enforce the law--a charge Whitlow wholeheartedly denies. Other observers say relatively minor violations in restaurants with political connections are ignored or treated more lightly than similar violations in other establishments.

"I know of restaurants in Cleveland [that] don't get fined [that] have serious problems," says Jan DeLucia, program manager for the hospitality management department at Cuyahoga Community College.

Some industry observers argue that fining is counterproductive and makes it harder for restaurants to comply with health codes. For that reason, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health and other health departments in Northeast Ohio will work with restaurants to get them up to code, shutting them down only if they pose a serious health threat. But they won't fine eating establishments, says county supervisor David Covell.

"Fining doesn't do it," he says. "If you fine, they may or may not correct the problem. You need to set up quality assurance."

DeLucia adds, "I would rather see the money put into training and correcting the problem."

Hertzer says the city's process is unusual, but legal. Blosser isn't so sure. Although the city was taking restaurant owners to court long before the mayor announced his crackdown on health code violators in his 1997 annual address, Blosser says a telephone call from the state health department last week was the first he'd heard about it. He asked his four-hundred-member local chapter, the Greater Cleveland Restaurant Association, to canvass its members about inspection problems.

"None of our members have been hit," he says. "If they had gone to court, believe me, I would have known about it. They could put somebody out of business with the fines they're levying."

Staff writer Elaine T. Cicora contributed to this story.

Jacqueline Marino may be reached at [email protected].

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