The most frequent topic of conversation in the community today, at least among the people I talk with, is about the number of restaurants that are being closed down following inspections by the Macon County Health Department. It’s also been one of the subjects Brian Byers and I have discussed the last two Thursdays on my City Hall Insider appearances on WSOY’s Byers & Co. In fact, one of the guests two weeks ago was Brandi Binkley, Administrator of the Health Department, who discussed what seems like a much more aggressive posture in food service inspections. She indicated it seems more aggressive because of new federal guidelines on inspections that have been adopted. Binkley also said that the department has been trying to notify the public about the changes in the way inspections are made, and had notified the restaurants and other food service providers, about the changes before they were made.
However, in my opinion, the department has not been very sharp in producing news about the inspections leaving a lot of confusion, and anger, especially from restaurant owners who have either been shut down following an inspection, or live in fear of being shut down. Closing down a small business for a few days can be financially devastating.
We started running the food inspection reports years ago, and I know our readers always appreciated seeing what restaurants and other food service providers were inspected and how high (or low) they rated. That system and the inspection reports provided over the years stopped at the end of last year. Over the years, Kathy Wade, Environmental Health Director, of the Macon County Health Department, provided me with the information, and she couldn’t have been nicer to work with. On Dec. 21, 2018, I received a message from Kathy that “Starting in January, we will start a new process for reporting of inspections. Once it is finalized, I will send you a copy and see what you think.” Apparently, plans changed because I was never informed of the “new process”, although I did inquire a couple of times when I received no word about when the reports would start again. I realize, since not much information on the inspections is coming to the news media from the Health Department that I’m hearing one side of the story when it comes to the complaints and fears expressed by food service managers and owners.
However, the Health Department really enraged public officials (including Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe) who were present for Decatur’s participation in the annual National Night Out event a week ago Tuesday evening. The annual event has been in existence for many years, and the food is donated, but the Health Department swooped in and eliminated some of the food as not meeting the standards set by the Department. That really ticked off a lot of people. What’s next? Church potlucks?
An owner of several fast food restaurants told me that he has about had it with the food inspectors coming in and writing him up for minute things — like the water coming out of the faucets in a sink where employees wash their hands being a few degrees off the required temperature. By the way, the employees don’t even handle the food with their bare hands. They always wear gloves! For other food service business owners, seeing a health inspector come through the door is like seeing the angel of death — knowing that the person has the power to shut down their business and it will cost them thousands of dollars in lost revenue.
I think all of us want to know that when we go to a restaurant or food service business that it has passed an inspection by the Health Department. I also think the Health Department would receive a lot of public blame and shame if a lot of people got sick from eating food at a local business because it had not been properly inspected. However, I also think that, unless some common sense is used in the inspection process, some businesses are not going to survive being shut down over something that could have been easily corrected.
The Macon County Health Department is about a lot more than food inspections and it does a tremendous job in a lot of ways to make this community a better place — and I appreciate those efforts. However, the food inspection horror stories continue to cast a negative reflection on the whole department and reduces it in the public eye to being a bully of food service providers. That has to change.
• IN LAST week’s column about work starting on the Decatur Public Library parking lot improvements, I mentioned that Decatur Public Library Foundation Member Mark W. Sorensen sent an email to Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe and five of the six council members requesting 50 additional parking spaces be added on the east sideof the lot at a minimal cost and explained the reasons why, City Councilman David Horn has shared with me the email that he sent to Sorensen expressing his thoughts on the request.
The email is reprinted here: “We disagree that the parking lot needs additional spaces. I am not aware of any information that indicates that the parking garage south of the library cannot handle: 1) library staff parking and 2) overflow parking needs for patrons. Based on conversations with various city entities and at city council meetings, it appears that city staff is ready to: 1) provide ample parking in the garage, 2) have signage regarding overflow parking in the library, and 3) repaint crosswalks and street parking lines on E. Main St. as necessary so that individuals are aware of the parking options available. Given that construction on the parking lot begins on Monday, I anticipate that the city staff is moving full speed ahead on these issues.
“I have spoken in multiple venues that the library staff should not have to pay for parking in the garage when it was the city council that voted to reduce the amount of parking that would be available to them. This will continue to be my position. I can also see some advantages for employees and patrons parking in the garage particularly during snowy winter days where there cars should remain snow free and on hot sunny days where there cars could remain in the shade. “I would have not supported additional parking in the east green space. If the council had agreed to add more parking it should have been in the western half of the lot where the current parking is. Such parking would be closer to the library. Furthermore, it is a shorter walk from the garage to the library entrance than it is to the east greenspace to the entrance.
“Finally, the eastern half of downtown is in need of a transformation. The large greenspace on the east side has an opportunity to help make this part of our city much more attractive. Many of the local experts in greenspaces have been contacted to assist and I hope the city will take advantage of their expertise to create an eye-popping greenspace. I have further asked that the city staff bring the city council options for this greenspace as plans progress. I also hope that the library staff and library board will take advantage of the north and south green spaces to create distinctive outdoor library programs that you couldn’t have done otherwise. With the library at the center, we really have an opportunity to create a game-changing area for the City of Decatur.”
• PIONEER RAILROAD Services has a crew repairing the crossing of County Highway 30 (Elwin Rd.) between Route 51 and S. Taylor Rd. The Crossing is closed for approximately one-week. The work started Tuesday, August 13, 2019. A detour route is marked.
• A FEW candidates for county offices are announcing their intentions to run in the next election. Check out page 13 in our Decatur Tribune print edition for information on the first two to announce their candidacies. Macon County Circuit Clerk Lois Durbin will not be running for re-election, so expect announcements regarding the candidates for that office. The second candidate for the office of Circuit Clerk is expected to file today.
• PAROLEES graduating. GEO Reentry Services and the Illinois Department of Corrections hosted a transition celebration for parolees who successfully completed programming at the Decatur Reentry Service Center. The event was held today, Aug. 14, at the program center, located at 876 W. Grand Ave. Staff, graduates, family members and officials from probation and parole attended the event to mark this important milestone. During the ceremony, graduates were invited to share their experiences in the program. For program graduates, the celebration followed months of regular reporting to the Decatur RSC, cognitive behavioral treatment and training and monitoring for substance abuse. The Illinois Department of Corrections opened the program in December 2004 to ease prison overcrowding and reduce recidivism rates among adult parolees. The RSC delivers evidence-based treatment, including techniques and classes proven to reduce recidivism. GEO Reentry combines daily reporting to the center and classes that address substance abuse, anger management, employment and educational issues.
Join City Hall Insider Paul Osborne every Thursday at 7:00 a.m. on WSOY’s Byers & Co. program as he joins host Brian Byers to discuss the issues impacting the Decatur area.