Knight Foundation Blog calls The Initiative for Investigative Reporting a “win-win endeavor”

Today’s piece for the John S. and James L. KnightFoundation blog has spotlighted the work of Watchdog New England. Calling the initiative a “win-win” for students, the community and the local media outlets with which Watchdog partners, the post points to the impact the non-profit has had since it first opened its virtual doors:

For students, the program provides the opportunity to collaborate with journalists and professors on hard-hitting local pieces; for the news organizations, the program offers quality, in-depth stories fit for publication. For communities, the program has shed light on important local issues, including the Dorchester local government’s plans for crime-ridden properties and Cambridge’s lax inspections of school cafeterias.

Read the complete piece here.

Cambridge food inspectors alone in lacking power to fine

By Gal Tziperman Lotan

Upstairs on the Square

The co-proprietor of Upstairs on the Square, an oft-praised Harvard Square restaurant, says she appreciates food inspectors’ persistence in doing their jobs, even when the restaurant’s diligence fails and they find violations. (Photo: Gal Tziperman Lotan)

Mary Cleavers, a city food inspector, walked into Upstairs on the Square, the oft-praised Harvard Square restaurant, for a routine inspection Nov. 17. She passed the dining room, with its animal print carpets and menus featuring such dishes as $28 pork loin and $32 charcoal-grilled sirloin, and entered the kitchen.

There she found drain flies, dirty floors, wet clutter on the bar floor and a bowl of rusty water under the sink, according to inspection reports obtained by Cambridge Day. None of these violations are classified as “critical” by the city’s inspectional standards — not like, say, expired food or cooks touching food with bare, unwashed hands. But the restaurant still needed to correct them to comply with the state Food Code.

Cleavers noted the violations in her report and submitted copies to the restaurant and the city’s Inspectional Services Department. Three days later, she returned for a re-inspection and found that not only were the violations unremedied, but three new minor ones had sprung up. It took a third visit, on Dec. 7, for the violations to be corrected.

Mary-Catherine Deibel, the restaurant’s co-proprietor, did not contest the inspector’s findings, and in fact said she appreciated that inspectors were persistent in how they do their jobs. “We try to be very clean,” she said in an interview. “But it’s a busy restaurant. We’re almost like a small hotel — though that’s no excuse … It should be swept, and it should be perfect all the time. That is what we aim for as owners. Over 30 years, we’ve had a really good record.”

Faced with repeat offenses, the three restaurant inspectors charged with making sure the city’s 630 eating establishments are up to code have only one weapon to force improvements: threatening to revoke a restaurant’s permit for an afternoon, a day or as long as it takes to fix the problems.

The added sanction of recommending fines against problem restaurants, which is available to food inspectors in all neighboring communities, doesn’t exist in Cambridge.

And Cambridge inspectors rarely, if ever, shutter restaurants, according to Kristen Fernandes, a Cambridge food inspector for 10 years. Fernandes said she could not recall any forced shutdowns mandated by Inspectional Services during her years on the job. Boston, by comparison, has temporarily suspended 275 permits since 2008.

It isn’t just that Cambridge inspectors have fewer sanctions. There are comparatively fewer of them to handle the workload. Fernandes and her two colleagues inspect 630 establishments every six months — about 210 per person — a heavier burden than that of inspectors in surrounding cities. Watertown’s inspectors, who also deal with housing, nuisance and other complaints, inspect just 57 restaurants every six months. In Newton, each inspector visits 133 restaurants twice a year. Even in Boston, where inspectors have 3,500 establishments to worry about, the individual burden is lower — 194 twice a year.

Fees to get a restaurant permit in Cambridge are significantly lower than in Boston: Cambridge eateries must pay Inspectional Services just $25 a year ($50 if the restaurant serves alcohol) plus 75 cents per seat. Across the river, restaurants pay Boston’s Inspectional Services Department $200 a year, plus another dollar for every seat over 100 seats. Boston restaurants that offer takeout must fork over an additional $200 to $1,200 a year — the more money a restaurant makes, the higher the fee.

Charging higher fees could allow Cambridge to hire more inspectors, but would not give these inspectors more power when dealing with repeat offenders.

Officials are noncommital

Cambridge city officials who oversee Inspectional Services were noncommittal on the need to beef up the number and resources of food inspectors. Inspectional Services Commissioner Ranjit Singanayagam referred questions to City Manager Robert W. Healy Jr., who sent them to the city’s Law Department. Two and a half weeks after the initial inquiry, Singanayagam e-mailed a brief statement suggesting the city would study the issue of allowing inspectors to fine problem restaurants.

“The city is always interested in exploring practices that may help to improve compliance with regulations or ordinances,” he said. “We will review the possible alternative enforcement method you have referenced and after review appropriate recommendations will be made as necessary to appropriate city officials. We will have no further comment until our review is completed.”

Mayor David Maher could propose that the City Council take the matter up officially, but Lee Gianetti, his chief of staff, said Maher wouldn’t make a decision until Inspectional Services drafted legislation. “The concept looks interesting for our perspective,” Gianetti said. “Once they have something concrete, we’ll comment on it.”

Under state law, inspectors must visit each food establishments once every six months for routine inspection, then return for re-inspections a few days to one week later until all violations are resolved. It is left to individual cities and towns to decide whether to issue fines or suspensions for restaurants that fail to maintain clean and sanitary conditions.

Ignoring repeat complaints

“Normally a good thing to do with them is to just sit them down for a hearing, bring in all the key players and have everybody sit down and talk about it, talk about why things are not getting taken care of when you’ve asked for them to be taken care of,” Fernandes said. “Usually that scares them enough.”

Still, some restaurants, even the best-regarded, can ignore inspectors’ repeat complaints, according to a review of three years of inspection documents for several upscale restaurants obtained by Cambridge Day. Three years ago, inspector Bernard “Buddy” Packer found no screen door between the dish room and trash bin area at Harvest, a renowned upscale restaurant on Brattle Street. With no screen door, insects and other unwelcome critters could saunter into the kitchen. A door had to be installed to keep the restaurant up to code, Packer wrote in his report.

Packer came back for a re-inspection, then another. There was still no screen door in the dish room, according to inspection reports. The restaurant’s management said there was a door on order Oct. 2, 2008, and the restaurant passed inspection — but on the next inspection, April 28, 2009, there was again no screen door to be found. General Manager Peter Baker declined to comment and referred Cambridge Day to Paul Dias, senior vice president of operations at American Food Management, which owns several well-regarded restaurants in Boston and Cambridge. Dias did not return multiple calls for comment.

Over the past three years, inspectors also cited Harvest for four instances of missing refrigerator thermometers and four accounts of allowing cooks and food handlers to wear jewelry or watches — violations of the Food Code that, while not severe enough to shut down the restaurant, can still put patrons at risk of food-borne illness.

Wielding a ticket book

That’s why Fernandes and other inspectors would like the power to fine repeat offenders. Inspectors in Belmont, Newton, Watertown, and Brookline all have the power to impose fines and do so regularly.

The fines won’t solve any budget woes: They typically bring only about $1,000 to $2,000 a year into towns’ general funds. Still, when an inspector comes in wielding a ticket book, restaurant managers tend to pay more attention, said Patrick Maloney, Brookline’s assistant director of public health. Maloney said his inspectors can fine offenders $50 per violation per visit. They only use that power, however, for chronic code violators.

“What it’s useful for are stubborn issues, like food that’s left at the counter unprotected, keeping doors open that would allow flies and pests to come in to the establishment, or any other thing that the inspector would feel they’ve cited a restaurant for multiple times,” Maloney said.

Bad repeat offenders can also get permit surcharges, where the cost of their permit goes up the more they offend. Brookline inspectors can levy these surcharges when they’ve received valid food illness complaints. Belmont uses the same method.

“It’s like driving infractions. Let’s say you’re in a lot of accidents, your insurance costs go up,” Maloney said. “If you’re not keeping your establishment clean, we’re burning more energy on you … so your permit will cost more.”

View the restaurant inspection reports for Upstairs on the Square and Harvest.

This story was produced through the Watchdog New England-Cambridge Day partnership. View the original story on Cambridge Day’s website.

Deadline nears for suit against city’s lawyers in Monteiro case

By Rachel Zarrell and Marc Levy

Cambridge’s outside counsel in a wrongful-termination lawsuit, Ropes & Gray, has Boston offices in the Prudential Tower, seen at right in the distance. (Photo: Wally Gobetz)

The city has through the weekend to try to recoup a potential $10 million loss by suing its own lawyers in a wrongful-termination case, but the decision to sue won’t bear the endorsement of the City Council.

The timing is key in the 12-year-old case, which the city lost but is appealing. The appeal may be decided by early September, and a win could save the city millions of dollars, making it unnecessary to sue its outside counsel in the case. Either way, the statute of limitations on a lawsuit ends Sunday.

Councillor Craig Kelley offered a policy order at a Monday meeting urging the city to ask its lawyer and law firm in the case to waive a three-year statute of limitations so a lawsuit was possible if the city lost again. But Kelley’s proposal was tabled by vice mayor Henrietta Davis until the next council meeting — Monday, a day too late.

“The city manager can do anything he wants. Even if we passed the order, he could still do anything he wants,” Kelley said Tuesday when reached by telephone. “The policy order was just a suggestion.”

Davis, who was traveling Wednesday in Washington, D.C., did not respond to messages asking for comment on her “charter right” veto of Kelley’s policy order.

The city could still file suit this week, or ask for an extension regardless of the fate of Kelley’s suggestion.

“Having a valid claim is also no guarantee the city would have collected,” Kelley said. “But as far as I can tell, it’s all been derailed.”

Mayor David P. Maher was asked for comment, but mayoral staffer Lee Gianetti referred questions to Healy. Healy did not return a request to comment.

The case

If there was a lawsuit, it would be almost by invitation.

The city hired lawyer Joan A. Lukey to handle Malvina Monteiro v. City of Cambridge, in which Monteiro complained of being fired as executive secretary of the Police Review and Advisory Board by Cambridge City Manager Robert W. Healy Jr. when he found she was complaining about racial discrimination. The city’s counter complaint: Monteiro got a master’s degree with work done during city business hours, and that the firing came five years after the race complaints. (Lukey had been with law firm Wilmer Hale but, as of June 17, 2008, is working at Ropes & Gray.)

A jury found May 23, 2008, that Healy had retaliated against Monteiro by firing her and awarded the plaintiff just over $1 million in compensatory damages, with an extra $3.5 million in punitive damages due to the city’s conduct.

In June 2008, the city filed papers for post-trial motions, with a hearing following June 19. On April 23, 2009, Judge Bonnie McLeod-Mancu denied the city’s requests, writing in her memorandum that Healy’s actions were a “deliberate, systematic campaign to punish the plaintiff.”

On May 4, 2009, the city’s lawyers moved for a reconsideration of the verdict and the decision on post-trial motions. At this point was the first mention of reducing punitive damages due to Healy being in constant contact with his counsel.

Defending this point in her statement, Lukey wrote: “Far from cavalierly disregarding the rights of Ms. Monteiro, Mr. Healy prudently sought the regular advice of counsel and regularly took into consideration the risk of a retaliation complaint with every decision that he was required to make … Imposing harsh penalties for consultation with counsel and exercising care to avoid engaging in, or being accused of, retaliation against a plaintiff who remains employed is contrary to public policy.”

To this, Monteiro’s lawyer, Ellen Zucker, responded in opposition to the city’s motion for reconsideration: “There is no factual basis whatsoever upon which the court may even consider this ‘advice of counsel’ defense.” Deputy City Solicitor Nancy Glowa was also with Healy to offer advice throughout the trial, Zucker said.

The appeal

A year later, May 20, the judge denied a separate request for a re-hearing. In June, Cambridge filed a notice of appeal in Monteiro v. Cambridge, which took place just weeks ago, May 4, in Boston.

Now, the city has until Monday, three years to the day after the jury awarded Monteiro the $4.5 million in damages, to file a malpractice suit against Lukey and her employer for giving the city manager potentially damaging advice.

“Arguably, we paid good money for that bad advice,” Kelley said. “Arguably, [Lukey] should say, ‘We are willing to be considered potentially liable for that advice for as long as it takes for this case to wind down.’”

Counsel’s actions could also be without fault, Kelley said.

“It might’ve been good advice by her that didn’t have the intended result,” he said. “It’s like if someone asks you if something is good to eat and you say, ‘Yeah, have a taste,’ and they don’t like it. Not everything that has a bad result means you can sue someone else to cover the damages.”

That’s not the way residents speaking during a public comment period saw it. Richard Clarey, an attorney, declaring himself one of the taxpayers “on the hook for a lot of money” to pay off the case, said a recommendation to fire Monteiro in September 2003 while a judge was ordering her initial case to trial was a surprisingly basic error. “A third-year law student wouldn’t advise that,” Clarey said.

“It’s malpractice on the level of leaving a scalpel inside a patient,” resident Charles Teague said.

Ropes & Gray is a 1,000-lawyer law firm with a corporate focus that, over 140 years, has grown to have offices in Boston, Chicago, Hong Kong, London, New York, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Tokyo and Washington, D.C. Gross revenue was $797 million in 2008, according to Chambers Associate, and said profits per equity partner in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available,  were $1,4 million, placing the firm in the 66th percentile. WilmerHale says it has more than 1,000 lawyers in a dozen cities worldwide.

Lukey was called Wednesday for comment.

“The only thing I do know is that once the statute of limitations closes, it seems pretty unlikely that we can have a discussion about who’s responsible for what,” Kelley said.

This story was produced through the Watchdog New England-Cambridge Day partnership. View the original story on Cambridge Day’s website.

Surging food stamp recipients leave town to stretch spending

Photos: Moroccan Mary (top); Mod as Hell (bottom); Graphic by Marc Levy

By Gal Tziperman Lotan

For 11 years, Kathy Podgers has been getting food stamps, making her a veteran in a program that even in affluent Cambridge has nearly doubled its recipients over the past four years.

As of December, 6.8 percent of the city’s population got food stamp benefits as part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, up from 3.5 percent in 2006. Cambridge residents get $9.8 million a year in benefits, which they can spend pretty much as they see fit on food in supermarkets, convenience stores and, soon enough, farmers markets.

The program offers no nutritional counseling, though, meaning recipients can use their benefits on items with scant nutritional value.

Podgers, who has lived in Cambridge since the 1960s and twice ran unsuccessfully for City Council, is fine with the lack of nutrition counseling. She had eaten a macrobiotic diet for years and is still not the type to buy liters of soft drinks and bags of potato chips. Most of her shopping in done in the produce aisles.

Cambridge is hardly what the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which used $64 billion in taxpayer money last year to pay for the state-administered benefits program, calls a “food desert” — a place where fresh, nutritious food is hard to come by. But recipients of the benefits interviewed by Cambridge Day said affordable foodstuffs can be hard to find in the city. Cambridge food vendors took in $4.2 million from SNAP cards last year, less than half the amount the state gave to city residents.

Cantabrigians are using their food stamps elsewhere.

Somerville’s Market Basket appears to be a favorite. In the 12 months ending June 1, the store, on Somerville Avenue a mile from Porter Square, got more than $11 million in food benefits, including from Podgers. The biggest food benefits vendor in Cambridge, Shaw’s in Porter Square, got slightly more than $1 million during the same time period, or 8.9 percent of spending at Market Basket.

Predictably, those getting food benefits in Cambridge varies by neighborhood.

In the Harvard Square and Brattle Street neighborhoods, the benefits go to 2.45 percent of residents. In contrast, 9 percent of those in North and East Cambridge ZIP codes, and 10 percent in Central and Inman Squares, are on food benefits.

In all, about 7,172 of the 105,162 residents of Cambridge get food benefits, according to the state Department of Transitional Assistance, which supervises the program for Massachusetts. Five years ago, it was 3,518.

Although the percent of residents on food benefits is a little over half the statewide average of 12.3 percent, the reason the rolls have soared is the same: the Great Recession. In November 2006, Cambridge boasted an unemployment rate of 3.4 percent. By January of this year, it had risen to 5.3 percent.

Longtime recipients such as Susan Jordan, 67, who began getting benefits in 1994 after a disability left her unable to work, said vendors as well as the public have become more accepting towards SNAP recipients as the number of people in the program has increased. “Because the economy is so poor, people are more open-minded,” she said. “The stigma went away when [the state] made it into a card rather than paper stamps. Now people don’t notice too much.”

Jordan shopped recently at the Harvest Cooperative Market in Central Square, swiping her bright blue SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer card to pay for a small bag of produce and groceries. She typically does her grocery shopping at Market Basket, but happened to be in the neighborhood that afternoon. She said she gets $160 a month to support herself. “I get enough that I can just use food stamps,” she said. “They’ve really helped me a lot.”

To qualify, a person must demonstrate financial need under Department of Agriculture guidelines. A single person can make no more than $1,174 a month or, as head of a four-person household, up to $2,389. If income increases, the food benefits allotment is lowered. Recipients must visit state counselors every six months to prove eligibility.

There are some limits on what can be bought with the benefits. For example, the funds cannot be spent on hot meals, alcohol, tobacco or nonfood items.

Otherwise — from produce to frozen food to popcorn and cookies — there are virtually no nutritional restrictions for the program. Julia Kehoe, commissioner of the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance, said her office supports high nutritional standards, but that the USDA has stayed clear of mandating such standards and with the statewide surge in recipients, her department is not equipped to do nutritional education. Food benefits counselors have caseloads of 900 to 1,000 apiece.

This story was produced as part of a collaboration between Watchdog New England and Cambridge Day. Read the original story at Cambridge Day.

Boston Globe editorial questions Cambridge City Council oversight

Watchdog New England and Cambridge Day’s recent story on Cambridge city manager Robert Healy’s rich salary and retirement package has spurred a Boston Globe editorial that asks city council: Who is making sure the Cambridge public is getting its money’s worth?

The editorial cites the private matter in which Healy’s most recent contract was negotiated, the handling of the Malvina Monteiro lawsuit and wonders whether city government in Cambridge resembles a fiefdom.

Healy’s supporters contend that Cambridge residents are comfortable with Healy’s leadership. But the essential drawback of a city-manager system of government is that a willful manager can gain so much leverage over the City Council that the government begins to resemble a fiefdom. After 30 years in office, Healy has assumed vast power in Cambridge. The council, which assigned two of its members to negotiate Healy’s latest pact and then approved it without discussing its costs, should take its oversight role more diligently.

Read the full editorial: Cambridge city manager’s pay shows lack of council oversight