September 26, 2013

Controversial Portland health inspector resigns

Michele Sturgeon was criticized for failing city restaurants at a higher rate than previously had been done.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – City Health Inspector Michele Sturgeon, who led the city's effort to beef up restaurant inspections over the past two years, resigned from her post effective Aug. 23.

click image to enlarge

Portland health inspector Michele Sturgeon goes through the kitchen at El Rayo Taqueria on Monday, September 24, 2012 with executive chef Cheryl Lewis.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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Michele Sturgeon, Portland's Health Inspector, in her City Hall office on Wednesday, August 15, 2012.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

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Human Resources Director Michael Miles referred all questions to city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg, who confirmed the resignation but did not respond to requests for additional information about why Sturgeon left and whether she received any payments.

Sturgeon did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Portland has more than 700 restaurants, which according to state law must be inspected once every two years.

Prior to Sturgeon's departure, the city employed 2.5 health inspectors. It's unclear whether the city will replace her.

Sturgeon was hired in August 2011 to strengthen the city's restaurant inspection program.

Before her arrival, restaurant inspections were conducted by code enforcement officers, rather than state-certified health inspectors. Due to the code officers' workload, restaurant inspections had largely been placed on the back burner.

Sturgeon found herself in the center of controversy in September 2012 when she closed the popular Porthole Restaurant, Comedy Connection and Harbour's Edge banquet hall because of a rat infestation. The restaurant, which underwent a major renovation, has since reopened under new ownership.

The Portland Press Herald reviewed restaurant inspections and found that Sturgeon was failing restaurants at a much higher rate than other state health inspectors. That was at least partly attributed to the lack of strong oversight before her arrival, but it also led to complaints from some restaurant owners.

Before Sturgeon arrived, only 28 restaurants out of 556 inspected between 2008 and 2010 failed – a failure rate of 5 percent. None was closed or deemed an imminent health hazard as a result of the city's inspections.

After Sturgeon was hired in August 2011, she failed 19 out of 23 restaurants that year – a failure rate of 82.6 percent. In 2012, about 40 out 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 found that over the past three years, Maine restaurants 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.

Sturgeon went on paid medical leave in December 2012 and didn't return to work until May. She was awaiting re-certification from the state before she could resume restaurant inspections.


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

Twitter: @randybillings


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