Inspector suspended in Sisters 3 dispute

Friday, December 17, 2010

Tennessee's health commissioner has decided to suspend without pay the state health inspector who cited a Lewisburg public square restaurant that's been ordered closed for having a second bathroom upstairs.

Health Commis-sioner Susan Cooper's letter to health inspector Carl Hammons says the suspension is for purchasing exercise equipment from the restaurant's landlord, a conflict of interest described as misconduct unbecoming a state employee.

Meanwhile, Kim Wing, proprietor of Sisters 3 at the Corner Café in the old county jail owned by bailbondsman Michael Farrar, intends to keep her restaurant open "as long as I can financially survive...

"It has almost destroyed me," Wing said. "You're trying to build something and people don't believe it (the closure order that's set aside awaiting her appeal hearing) is something as ridiculous as a second-floor bathroom."

Among many rules for restaurant operation is a requirement for a second restroom when there are a certain number of seats, or more. To get to a second restroom made available by Farrar for Wing's customers, one must step out of the building and climb stairs to the second floor. That path to the restroom is apparently the problem.

The health commissioner's Oct. 15 letter to Hammons quotes Farrar as saying that during a Sept. 8 inspection Hammons "offered him (Farrar) $50 for his exercise equipment while you (Hammons) were inspecting his restaurant in your official capacity ... Farrar indicated that his equipment was worth significantly more than $50 ... however, he agreed to do so."

State employees should "not engage in a financial transaction for personal gain relying upon information obtainable solely through one's employment," Cooper told Hammons on Oct. 15.

Her Oct. 25 letter directed the suspension for three days without pay. It followed Hammons' apparent decision against challenging the suspension, although he had a right to file a grievance.

State employees are not to speak with the press, according to Shelley Walker, a spokeswoman for the health department. Cooper's letters to Hammons and many other papers in his personnel file were made available by Walker on a request to view public records. A form was signed for this newspaper to view the records. Since that form stated that a copy would be provided to Hammons, he was therefore asked in writing to take the opportunity to provide his interpretation of the chain of events. There has been no other contact made with Hammons, although Walker has agreed to determine whether her superiors or others in the department would waive the prohibition on employees' discussion with the press.

A review of Hammons personnel file, as made available by Walker, indicates that, other than the letters from Cooper with regard to the Corner Café, the man has a good record.

Even Wing substantiates such a conclusion, as has at least one other restaurant operator in Lewisburg who's been inspected by Hammons and who was asked about his service as an inspector.

"I've had a restaurant since 2004," Wing said, referring to her Sisters 3 locations in Belfast, on North Fifth Avenue and at Saddle Creek Golf Clubhouse before moving to the building owned by Farrar.

"He's hardcore," Wing said, "but I've never had a problem from him. I've never had this kind of problem, so it does surprise me" that the circumstances have led to such conflict that's brought legal representation by attorney David McKenzie of Lewisburg who is building a case for Wing's defense in an administrative law court hearing. It's to be conducted by another department of state government and therefore the health department has no control over when the appeal might be heard.

The second floor bathroom at Corner Café has a shower as well as a commode and sink. Wing's previous restaurants had two bathrooms on the same floor, but some of them had showers that were not cited, she said.

"The shower was the first reason for citing the bathroom upstairs," Wing said, claiming other restaurants have bathing facilities with a commode and vanity.

"Then they came back saying they didn't like the location, men going outside and up steps to the bathroom," Wing said Thursday.

"It's been tough" keeping the restaurant open in downtown Lewisburg, she said, "because you don't know when they're going to arrive and say shut your doors."

Monday, Carter Garner, assistant director of the General Environmental Health Division, one of the department officials who've met with Hammons about his purchase of exercise equipment from Farrar, agreed to make three basic statements about procedural facts surrounding Wing's situation.

"Our enforcement has stopped pending the hearing," Garner said. "The department doesn't set the hearings."

That's done by the administrative law judge and with some consultation with attorneys representing the department and the complainant.

As for Hammons and what led to the suspension: "It was a lapse of judgment."