October 16, 2013

Portland restaurant inspector was paid to quit, clam up

Michele Sturgeon, criticized for giving too many eateries failing grades, got $18,600 and agreed not to ‘speak ill’ of city officials or services.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Michele Sturgeon promised that she never would criticize Portland and would drop any claims against the city in exchange for receiving $18,600 to resign as the city’s health inspector.

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Former Portland health inspector Michele Sturgeon promised that she never would criticize Portland and would drop any claims against the city in exchange for receiving $18,600 to resign as the city’s health inspector.

Gabe Souze/Staff File Photo

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Read the Sturgeon settlement agreement

The “release and settlement” agreement, which was signed Aug. 22 and obtained by the Portland Press Herald through a Freedom of Access request, hints at a rocky relationship between city officials and Sturgeon, who earned a reputation in the restaurant industry as a strict inspector. But it provides no details about why Sturgeon quietly left the job.

The agreement says Sturgeon agreed “never to disparage or speak ill of the city or any of its products, services, affiliates, officers, directors, or employees in their professional capacities.”

It prevents her from filing any claims – and dismisses any claims that may already be in progress – against the city, and prohibits her from ever working for the city again.

The seven-page agreement does not indicate wrongdoing or acknowledge any active claims by either party. It prohibits Sturgeon from discussing the details of her severance.

“They’re paying someone to leave, so something has gone awry,” said Rebecca Webber, an attorney in Auburn who has practiced employment law for 20 years and was asked to assess the language of the agreement. “But it’s not clear who is responsible” for any conflict between Sturgeon and the city, Webber said.

Sturgeon resigned in August after two years on the job as the city’s first health inspector, and has declined to comment or explain her departure. She was hired to revamp Portland’s restaurant inspection program, which was moved from the city’s planning department to the public health department.

The change was needed because inspections were being prioritized by code enforcement officers in the planning department.

Sturgeon became known as an inspector who was not inclined to give restaurant owners any breaks from code violations, even if the violations did not directly affect food contamination.

After Sturgeon was hired in August 2011, she failed 19 of the 23 restaurants inspected that year – a failure rate of 82.6 percent.

In 2012, about 40 of 88 restaurants failed, a rate of 45.5 percent, and nine were closed because they were deemed imminent health hazards.

An analysis by the Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram showed that over the past three years, Maine restaurants overall had failed 6.3 percent of all inspections. At least 46 restaurants statewide that were deemed imminent health hazards were closed until their violations were resolved.

Restaurant owners complained that Sturgeon was holding them to impossibly high standards.

The city, meanwhile, has been sensitive to negative publicity about its restaurants, which have received national accolades. Sturgeon was prohibited from talking to the media while she worked for the city.

“The whole idea (behind the settlement) is everyone goes on their separate ways and leaves each other alone,” said Webber, the employment attorney.

Sturgeon will receive a lump sum of $9,000 and an additional $4,914 payment in December, provided she complies with the agreement. The city will pay her an additional $4,655 to cover three months of health insurance premiums.

The agreement says, “The city shall not release the terms of this agreement to the public except to the extent it is obligated to do so pursuant to any applicable Freedom of Access law.”

In late September, city officials would not disclose even the existence of a severance agreement. The document was provided only after the Press Herald filed a written request citing the state’s open-records law.

City attorney Danielle West-Chuhta would not discuss the agreement Tuesday.

Judy Meyer, a vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, said the city complied with the law by providing the agreement. However, she was concerned that the city may be requiring the public to file formal Freedom of Access requests to receive public documents.

“The average person doesn’t know,” she said. “It can be pretty frightening for people to approach their government and ask for a document.”

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

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings

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