Professional groups representing California’s health inspectors have joined with restaurant, grocery and apartment operators to form an unusual alliance aiming to defeat Proposition 95, the Hunger and Homelessness Funding Initiative.
The coalition--Citizens Against Prop. 95--brings together the “regulators” and the “regulated” who say they have found a common ground in maintaining the state’s current health and safety enforcement effort.
Support from the three largest organizations representing health inspectors statewide broadens the message coming from the anti-Proposition 95 forces and could greatly increase the potential for getting that message out.
For the first time since Proposition 95 won a place on the ballot in April, the opposition forces are saying that enforcement of the health code could actually be weakened by the proposition. The inspectors say the measure would destroy their ability to gain the cooperation of those they inspect.
Under the present system, inspectors do not automatically issue citations for violations. Businesses are first warned of violations and only if the problems are not corrected in an allotted time are operators sued criminally.
In many cases, the offenses are minor things--such as burned-out light bulbs--that are easily remedied when a warning is given. But the inspectors say that under Proposition 95 they would immediately have to issue a citation.
And they charge that Proposition 95 sets up what amounts to a quota system by requiring them to issue enough citations to raise $50 million to $90 million a year in new fines on health, safety and building code violations called for in the ballot initiative. The money would be funneled into various housing, food and job-training programs designed to help the homeless.
Proponents of Proposition 95 say the inspectors are just bureaucrats reluctant to change even though a stronger enforcement policy is overdue. The backers see the measure as a double-edged sword to strengthen enforcement of health and safety codes while helping the homeless.
The inspectors do not question Proposition 95’s goal--only its methods.
“We agree that there is a problem with homelessness that needs to be resolved,” said Jeff Palsgaard, president of the California Environmental Health Assn., which represents 3,000 inspectors statewide. “But we do not agree with the funding mechanism,” said Palsgaard, who is also director of the Merced County Health Department.
Palsgaard and other inspectors say the new fines would clog the courts with more than 1,000 additional cases a day, as business owners decide to fight citations that could cost a maximum of $250 a day.
“We’d prefer to have our (inspectors) working on public health, not sitting in court,” said Donald Koepp, president of the California Conference of Directors of Environmental Health, which represents all 58 county health directors in California. Koepp is also environmental health director for Ventura County. The Health Officers Assn. of California is also opposing Proposition 95.
The health officials say their efforts to seek compliance with the codes through education would be jeopardized by the proposition, which would force them to act as “meter maids.” The ready access to restaurants and groceries that most inspectors now enjoy could evaporate as business owners, fearing fines, could insist that inspectors have a warrant to enter their properties. (The owners are not required by law to admit inspectors without a warrant.)
“The penalties are unnecessary,” Koepp said. “It’s just punitive.”
Operators of restaurants, groceries, apartments and hotels have argued that Proposition 95 unfairly singles out a few industries to pay for the problems of hunger and homelessness.
“It’s the responsibility of all of us in this state, not just the restaurants and people who own property,” said Assemblyman Trice Harvey (R-Bakersfield) who signed the ballot argument against the proposition. Harvey, a former Kern County health inspector, said he keeps his state sanitarian’s registration current.
Other business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and the California Taxpayers Assn., are also opposing the ballot measure.
These groups say the proposition establishes an unnecessary bureaucracy that could eat up as much as 35% of the funds generated from the fines.
Proponents of the measure, led by State Board of Equalization member Conway Collis, say that the opposition of the inspectors is predictable.
“A bureaucracy is hard to move,” Collis said. “They have a comfortable relationship between the regulators and the regulated. But that does not serve the public interest.”
Proponents call Proposition 95 the first comprehensive, statewide approach to dealing with the problems of hunger and homelessness that would not use any tax dollars.
“The district attorney’s office would support this proposition even without the funding provisions for the homeless,” said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner. He said fines are necessary because “enforcement has to have some bite in it.”
Violations of the health, safety and building codes are routine. “You could walk into the finest restaurant in California and find violations,” Palsgaard said.
Palsgaard said that in his county, the average inspection turns up three violations. Koepp said his inspectors find seven violations on the average inspection.
Both health directors agreed that most violations are minor in nature, quickly corrected and not deserving of a fine.
Still, Collis and Reiner discounted the possibility that courts would become clogged by people fighting these tickets. They likened the fines to traffic citations, which are routinely paid without protest. If there are additional court costs, they could be added to the fine, Collis said.
And Collis defended the ability of inspectors to use their discretion. He said there would still be times when a “fix it” ticket, or formal warning, would be more appropriate than an automatic fine.