Saturday, December 7, 2013
By Randy Billings firstname.lastname@example.org
PORTLAND – A string of emails shows that city officials scrambled to reopen three waterfront businesses soon after they were closed this month for health code violations, including a "serious rat infestation."
The Porthole restaurant, the Comedy Connection nightclub and the Harbour’s Edge banquet hall, all on Custom House Wharf, were shut down Sept. 14 by a Portland health inspector who said she found a rat “infestation,” flies on food, drains leading into the ocean and other violations.
Press Herald file photo/Gabe Souza
The emails show that the city's health inspector originally estimated it would take a week or two for the Porthole restaurant, the Comedy Connection nightclub and the Harbour's Edge banquet hall to come into compliance.
They were cleared to reopen within two days.
Meanwhile, the state was concerned that the restaurant reopened before a professional cleaning company had scrubbed it, and that the health inspector had estimated it would take one to two weeks to address health code issues.
Douglas Gardner, director of Portland's Health and Human Services Department, said the department's top priority is ensuring public safety. It is sensitive to the impact such a closure can have on a business, he said, but it did not give preferential treatment to the business owner, Oliver Keithly.
Emails received by the Portland Press Herald through a Freedom of Access request show a flurry of activity after the closure of the Porthole, the Comedy Connection and the Harbour's Edge on Sept. 13.
Keithly contacted City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones that night to find out who supervised Michele Sturgeon, the city's health inspector. Keithly said Thursday that he was concerned that one person could close down a business.
Mavodones said he told Keithly to contact Gardner. The councilor called Gardner the next morning to talk about the situation. Mavodones said Thursday that he did not pressure Gardner to reopen the businesses.
"I may have said to Doug that I hope we look at things through a reasonable lens, or use your good judgment for life safety," Mavodones said Thursday. "I don't remember exactly. It's possible we talked about something like that."
Fred Forsley, president and co-owner of Shipyard Brewing Co. in Portland, sent an email to state Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland, Mayor Michael Brennan and Chris O'Neil, the Portland Community Chamber's liaison to City Hall.
Forsley forwarded a newspaper article, dated Sept. 14, about the city closing down the businesses, and wrote "another biz friendly headline." He defended Keithly and asked officials to reopen the business as soon as possible.
"Oliver is a great Portland citizen and businessman," Forsley wrote. "We need flexible people to manage unique issues."
Sturgeon sent an email on the morning of Sept. 14 to Lisa Roy, the state's health inspection program manager, saying the conditions in the business were "horrendous" and would take a "min. of a week or two" to address. Sturgeon did a follow-up inspection later that day, saw a rat in the kitchen and failed the restaurant again.
That same day, Gardner said, he gave Keithly verbal permission around 4 p.m. to cook lobsters in the kitchen, since he had made substantial progress in meeting the city's expectations and was serving a limited number of people for a wedding reception aboard the Casablanca tour boat.
An anonymous email sent to Sturgeon at 3:29 p.m. said the staff had cooked food at the Porthole and "snuck it on the boat." The email said workers left in protest.
Both Keithly and Gardner dispute that claim. Keithly said the lobsters were cooked at "4 p.m. or 5 p.m."
"There was no cooking going on in the kitchen while we were there" on that Friday, Gardner said.
Emails between Sturgeon and Gardner speculate that Keithly may have been preparing to serve food on the Casablanca, even though he had not yet been given permission.
"I'm not sure they had gotten the go ahead by the time this email was sent," Gardner wrote, referring to the anonymous tip. "This may have been their plan right along, but it's impossible to tell."
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