PORTLAND – Improving restaurant inspections and banning smoking in public parks top Thursday’s agenda for the City Council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee.

Portland’s food code has not kept pace with the state’s food code, so the city staff is recommending that Portland simply adopt the state code, which would allow the city to fine violators.

It also would make it easier on owners who have restaurants in other communities, said City Councilor Edward Suslovic, the committee chairman. “We want to make it as easy as possible for people to comply,” he said.

The state code calls for a $50 fine for each “critical violation,” defined as one with potential to contaminate food or cause illness. If a critical violation is repeated in a subsequent inspection, the fine is $100.

Non-critical violations, which range from a wastebasket without a lid to plumbing problems, can come with penalties of $25 for first violations and $50 for repeat violations.

Restaurant owners are assessed $75 fees for follow-up inspections.

A recent investigation by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram showed that nearly 80 percent of the 49 restaurants inspected in Portland within the past year failed their inspections, and three restaurants were declared imminent health hazards and closed until the violations were addressed.

Suslovic said the city will continue to stress education and seek voluntary compliance before fining restaurants.

But, he said, “For some portion of the constituency, fines are an important part of the process.”

Suslovic said the committee is eager to hear from the staff about what additional resources are needed to beef up health inspections, which are now done by one person. There are about 800 eating establishments in the city.

The committee also will take up a proposal to ban smoking in public places. It has been working on the proposal since July and voted in favor of it in September. The City Council sent the proposal back to the committee so the staff could define which parks would be affected.

The staff has listed 36 parks that would be smoke-free, including Back Cove, Baxter Woods, Eastern Promenade, Western Promenade, Monument Square, Post Office Park, Tommy’s Park and the Valley Street Dog Park.

The staff considered excluding the city-run Riverside Golf Course, but Suslovic said the committee believes that smoking is already banned there because it is an athletic facility.

Suslovic said City Manager Mark Rees is expected to argue against that view on Thursday. Rees could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

The ban also would apply to “other substances that emit smoke that is used and intended customarily for inhalation into the lungs in outdoor locations.” It also would prohibit free distribution of “other products that are designed for smoking” in parks.

It’s unclear whether the changes would prohibit free distribution of medicinal marijuana. Last summer, one medical-marijuana advocate gave away pot to low-income patients during a rally at Deering Oaks.

When asked if such the ordinance would prohibit medicinal giveaways, Ann Freeman, a staff attorney who drafted the ordinance, said “the purpose of this ordinance is and always was intended only to address tobacco smoke.”

Portland already prohibits smoking in most public places, including within 25 feet of playgrounds, beaches or athletic fields. The state prohibits smoking in most areas of state parks and on state beaches.

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings