Mission Impossible

Even without the low pay, high turnover and oppressive conditions, city health inspectors can't manage the load

Other inconsistencies are even more dramatic. Inspector Angie Brown recently lost her job for allegedly abusing city time and falsifying documents, though the way her case was handled raises serious ethical questions (see "Frontline Firing"). But other employees who were nailed for the same offenses were either suspended or reprimanded.

Brown had a clean disciplinary record in more than seven years as an inspector, but her history had hardly endeared her to management. A Concerned Sanitarian for Change, Brown had brought complaints to a number of city, state and federal agencies over the years, including the police. At least one supervisor suspected her of tipping the Press to the inspections backlog and file-room nightmare last fall, according to sources. And in May, she and another inspector met with Mayor Lee Brown to apprise him of the situation. "We told him everything that was going on," Angie Brown says.

The Concerned Sanitarians have informally disbanded. Many have left or, like Angie Brown, been fired. Those who remain believe that they and their former colleagues were branded as malcontents and troublemakers and have been deliberately targeted for harassment. "One can only speculate that part of it would be retaliation," says Sandra Serra, who has herself unsuccessfully fought two promotion denials. "I don't think we'll ever know the truth."

To keep inspectors in line and improve productivity, Chirag Bhatt and his crew of chief sanitarians and supervisors have been zealously enforcing the myriad rules that govern their employees' every action. To maximize every moment in the field, inspectors are banned from headquarters except on Wednesdays, unless they have special permission. Each week, Bhatt checks the printout from the tracking devices mounted on the inspectors' cars, makes little red marks next to suspect entries and passes the report to the supervisors for cross-checking. The supervisors also conduct random audits, retracing routes and asking whether the inspectors were at the specific locations and did the specific work indicated on their daily reports.

They're not so demanding of themselves. Supervisors who are supposed to spend the bulk of their time in the office have been known to disappear for several hours at a stretch. Office workers report that Bhatt occasionally wanders into the office well after the 8 a.m. deadline, though there's no indication he's ever reprimanded himself for being late.

Given the attention management pays to the city's vehicle policies, it's odd that Bhatt and others would abuse it themselves. But until last year, Bhatt tooled about town in a late-model city car he took home at night, even though he wouldn't ordinarily have qualified for home storage. His inspectors, in contrast, drive older vehicles that sometimes break down and must be temporarily replaced by substitutes -- some with no air conditioning. "Nobody says the job's comfortable," Bhatt chuckles.

Bhatt defends his home-storage wheels, claiming he was part of the bureau's "emergency response team," which technically qualified him, though by his own admission he hasn't responded to any emergencies. "Not in a recent time, no," he says.

It's harder to defend the city vehicles that were assigned to a pair of administrative assistants in the office who rarely used them. According to several sources, the assignments were made to circumvent the city's proscription against having extra cars sitting around for anyone to use on errands or other nonessential trips. Bhatt insists that the office workers took the cars to the city print shop and other destinations on official city business. "If there is a need for a car to be used, they utilize those cars," Bhatt says.

Health department spokeswoman Kathy Barton is a little more up-front. "You may be right," Barton says. "It was a backdoor way of having a pool car."

Such petty abuses might be excusable in a vacuum. Sure, everybody on the city payroll stretches the limits on some policy or other, and keeping an extra car or two around as a convenience hardly registers on the malfeasance scale. But when low-level employees are fired for allegedly falsifying documents, as Angie Brown was, misrepresenting driver assignments on vehicle-requisition forms takes on a whole new meaning.

Not all the abuses identified by the inspectors are so lightweight, however. Until last June, dozens of citations written for health-code violations were either voided in ways that don't seem to comport with the regulations or disappeared entirely, raising enough questions of propriety to launch a police investigation and a complete overhaul of the way citations are handled internally (see "Phantom Tickets").

In addition, documents obtained by the Press indicate that at least two supervisors inspected restaurants a few days after a regularly scheduled visit by an inspector, which would artificially beef up the inspection numbers; others used improper codes on daily reports, possibly to mask their activities. Sanitarians tell of orders from above to redo inspection reports and leave off damaging information from the original; supervisors allowing restaurants to operate without permits for more than a year and other actions both dishonest and patently illegal. "Politics plays a big part in our office," says an inspector who claims to have been repeatedly overruled by supervisors to the benefit of certain establishments.

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