Numerous non-profit community service organizations were stunned earier this year when the Jefferson County Board of Health denied them permission to serve food at fundraising events.
These organizations (Rotary, Kiwanis, the Animal Welfare Society and many others) had for years held fairs, festivals, picnics and other outdoor activities as fundraisers. All of a sudden they were told that they would have to abide by the same food service rules that restaurants must obey.
Why the sudden change in rules? And why make such a drastic change without any input from (or even advance notice to) the organizations?
The Jefferson County Board of Health is, as its name conveys, a county agency. The members are appointed by the Jefferson County Commission for fixed terms of several years each. Once appointed, the members of the board are free to decide matters under their jurisdiction as they please with no control from the county commission.
I've believed for a long time that this is a bad system of government. The members of the county commission are elected by the people to run the county. It is they who must ultimately answer to the voters for making policy.
But the county commissioners have no real say in the policies made by their appointees to the board of health. This is true of many other county agencies, as well. These agencies constitute what my old friend Jim Smith, who served on the Berkeley County Commission for several years, used to call "shadow governments." Each is absolute czar of a defined area of public policy, with no incentive to be accountable to the public other than a desire on the part of some of them to be reappointed when their term is up. I think history has proven that's not enough incentive.
While the board of health is a county agency, the rules it applies are made by the State of West Virginia. The legislature makes the law governing food safety, and the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) writes rules detailing how the local health boards are to apply the law.
Sen. Herb Snyder and I asked for and got a meeting with the Secretary of Health and Human Resources, Mike Lewis, two weeks ago when the legislature was holding its monthly interim meetings in Charleston. Secretary Lewis told us he was already working to fix the problem.
He said his preliminary findings indicated that some of the problem stemmed from the fact that the sanitarians in question were new. They apparently did not realize that rules for food service were different for "one-time" events than for ongoing activities (like restaurants).
He said that this, in turn, resulted from a very serious problem we who represent the Eastern Panhandle have been trying for years to fix. Salaries for public employees here are not commensurate with housing costs. That, coupled with much higher salaries a few miles away across state lines, makes for constant turnover among employees. This is true of teachers, state troopers, human service caseworkers and many other public workers.
Related to this is that DHHR uses one application form for all food service operations. Veteran sanitarians know to tell applicants for one-time events to ignore the portions of the form that apply only to restaurants. I suggested that the form be revised to make it clear to anyone reading it that the restaurant rules did not apply to one-time events. Secretary Lewis agreed to consider that.
I met again with Secretary Lewis a week later when he came to Martinsburg. He assured me that the Jefferson County Board of Health had been informed of the correct rules, and that we should have no more problems of this nature.
It's important that those whose job it is to apply the obey the rules. The most important rule to obey is the rule of reason.