September 28, 2012

After infestation, Portland rushed restaurant reopenings

The inspector saw serious problems and the state wanted a 'deep cleaning' done, but the Porthole got the OK after two days.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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."

click image to enlarge

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

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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."

Sturgeon agreed.

"By the timing of this, the food must have already been on the boat, as we were there then," Sturgeon said.

Gardner emailed Sturgeon that night, expressing hope that Keithly would "kick butt in there tonight and get most of the stuff corrected" and pass inspection the next day.

Sturgeon replied, "I thought I was an optimist. ... I bow to you on that title," punctuating it with a smiley face.

In a separate email earlier that evening, Sturgeon expressed concern about how the state would react to the city giving Keithly verbal permission to cook in the Porthole, especially if Roy, who heads the state inspections division, found out from the tipster.

"She's going to go bananas," Sturgeon wrote.

Roy said in an interview last week that the city should not have allowed any cooking in a kitchen that had been closed because it was deemed an imminent health hazard.

"If the inspector on site felt that (the kitchen) was not safe to prepare and serve food, and it was closed, then nothing should be happening in that operation with regard to cooking," Roy said.

Roy said state officials would meet with Portland officials to discuss how the incident was handled. Gardner said Thursday that that conversation has not yet occurred.

If given the chance to do it all again, Gardner said, he would have allowed Keithly to cook the meal.

Sturgeon cleared the restaurant to reopen on Sept. 15, after the Porthole's staff cleaned the kitchen. But the state expressed concern that a "deep cleaning" had not yet been done.

"I am concerned regarding the cleaning company that is due to come in for deep cleaning and why this was not done before they were allowed to open," Roy said in an email to Gardner dated Sept. 17. "This is typically the procedure that the establishment is asked to clean before they reopen."

Gardner acknowledged in an email to City Manger Mark Rees on Sept. 19 that missteps had been made.

"I hope to learn from those missteps so that future situations don't 'explode' like this one did," he wrote.

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

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings

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