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Prop. 95 Fight Taken to Vons With Record of Infestations

Times Staff Writer

In an effort to dramatize what they say is the sorry state of the California health inspection system, backers of Proposition 95 demonstrated at a Hollywood Vons store Tuesday, revealing that the store has an “average” rating despite two citations for rodent infestations.

The protest--with the attendant signs, banners and leaflets--was the first of several to be held around the state by those supporting the ballot initiative. Proponents are hoping that the demonstrations will help combat a planned $1-million advertising campaign by the anti-Proposition 95 forces that is largely funded by the state’s grocers.

Smelling a Rat?

“If you think you smell a rat when you see the grocery industry pump (money) into a campaign against Proposition 95, chances are that you do,” said Conway Collis, proponent of the proposition.

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Proposition 95, the Hungry and Homelessness Funding Initiative, would raise up to $90 million annually through new fines on safety, health and building code violations. The funds would be funneled into various food, shelter and job training programs.

The measure is being fought by a coalition of grocery, restaurant and apartment owners, who would pay the bulk of the fines.

“This certainly explains their actions,” Collis said about the inspection reports, which showed that the store at Vine Street and Melrose Avenue was cited in May and again in June for “rodent infestation” and 20 other “minor” health code violations.

Bill Ward, a district director with the county Department of Health Services, said the inspection “sounds about average.”

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“Every establishment you walk into has some violations,” said Ward. “They are usually minor and we tell them, ‘Clean up this, clean up that.’ If it was a major problem, we would close them up.”

Though the rodent infestations at the Vons store were corrected within one month of each outbreak, Ward said he would be concerned if they continued.

Under current law, business operators pay no fines for code violations as long as they promise to correct the problem.

Other Violations Cited

The target of the protest was formerly a Safeway location that was recently purchased by Vons for its Pavilion chain. It was selected as the site of the first protest in part because of its record, organizers said.

But other nearby Vons locations, as well as stores in other chains, had other numerous health violations, records showed. “You don’t have to look hard to find one,” said Rev. Gene Boutillier, a supporter of the initiative.

Vons officials would not comment on the reports, but a spokesman for the grocery industry who was representing the chain said the violations are not unusual.

“Every store has problems like this,” said Don Beaver, president of the California Grocers Assn. “Many of us have mice in our homes. That’s why we have pest control companies.”

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Beaver said that fines called for under Proposition 95 would cost the average supermarket $4,000 to $5,000 annually.

“No wonder they oppose it,” said Collis, who is also a member of the State Board of Equalization. “These violations now go virtually unenforced” because there is no system of fines to put teeth into the law.

Some prosecutors, such as Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, support the proposition because they say it would strengthen enforcement of the codes.

But the measure is being fought by organizations representing health and building inspectors who say the fines will threaten the high level of voluntary compliance that they now have.

But the measure is being fought by organizations representing health and building inspectors who say the fines will threaten the high level of voluntary compliance that they now have.

“You might think this store would receive a failing grade,” said Collis. “No. It got an average grade” according to the inspector’s report, he said.

The staged protest at the Vons store may have been successful in bringing out the television cameras and other media to focus on the issue, but the signs and leaflets apparently had little effect on the dozens of shoppers and potential voters who passed by.

Most said they knew nothing of the proposition when they came and left learning little more, despite lurid leaflets that proclaimed: WARNING! Shopping at Vons may be hazardous to your health.

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But one woman--after listening to the arguments on both sides--said simply, “Why don’t they just use the money to clean up the rats.”


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