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The state health department's Bruce Stone, Sen. Patty Ritchie, and Assemblywoman Addie Russell look on as people complain about health inspectors.
The state health department's Bruce Stone, Sen. Patty Ritchie, and Assemblywoman Addie Russell look on as people complain about health inspectors.

Local leaders vent anger at health inspectors

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The "granddaddy" of St. Lawrence County chili cook-offs went off smoothly yesterday. Organizers of the Morristown Chili and Chowder Cook-o-Rama were nervous after similar events were cancelled this month in Canton and Ogdensburg due to health codes.

On Friday, local leaders gave state health inspectors an earful at a meeting in Canton. As David Sommerstein reports, they complained of onerous and capricious enforcement.

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David Sommerstein
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This so-called “chili cook-off summit” was billed as a chance for dialogue and understanding.  But a few dozen event organizers had a lot to get off their chests.

County chamber of commerce director Pat McKeon set the tone.  She read off scrawled post-it notes things her members have said about the local health inspectors.

Department of health is worse than tax collectors of the IRS.  Not cooperative and turf-grabbing rogue inspectors.  I mean, those are heavy duty accusations from community groups, and by and large these are very civil, smily, chamber of commerce types.

Other chamber reps piled on.  They called health inspectors intimidating, threatening.  They accused them of shutting events down “with glee”.  County administrator Karen St. Hillaire told the story of a bank that tried to hold a customer appreciation day.

People come in and they give them a hot dog and a soda.  The inspector came in, had a hot dog and a soda, and then shut them down.  And that to me says there’s a real problem here.

Bruce Stone sat at the front of the room and took his lumps.  He directs the local office of the state health department.  He said he was surprised by what he heard.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again.  We’re actually on the same side.  We want the event to go off, we want you folks, we want you folks to make money.  We want an event where people will not get sick.

State health codes are intended to make sure people don’t get sick at a chicken BBQ or church supper.  But for fire departments, VFWs, and other not-for-profits, the codes are elaborate and hard to follow.

Many complained enforcement is inconsistent.  State Senator Patty Ritchie, who with Assemblywoman Addie Russell convened this summit, said some people are afraid to complain.

People are afraid of retaliation.  They’re afraid that if their one event is closed down, if they can’t continue or raise a concern, the next event is targeted.

County Fair organizer and county legislator Don Peck said health inspectors here are stricter than elsewhere.  He said he hears it from the fair vendors.

They’re fine in Jefferson County.  They’re fine in Lewis County.  They’re fine in Boonville.  They’re fine in any other part across the state until they get to St. Lawrence County.  And they get to St. Lawrence County and they’re made to do things here that they’re not made to do in other places.

Maggie Dietrich manages the state health offices for a large chunk of central and northern New York.  She, too, said she was surprised at the accusations.  She said all the offices are consistent in enforcement.  What may be different, she said, are the event conditions.

Maybe one has a public water supply and one doesn’t.  The one that doesn’t of course we’re going to require a lot more details of where is that water coming from.

The two sides seemed to remain far apart.  But chamber director Pat McKeon said talk is progress.  And there was agreement to hold more face-to-face meetings before spring and summer events kick in.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m David Sommerstein in Canton.


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