First in a Series

When it comes to municipal ordinances, it pays to know the code.

During Monday night’s Waxahachie City Council meeting, a number of amendments were approved to the city’s code of ordinances concerning the permitting process for food handlers, junked vehicles and new rules for residential pools, ponds and hot tubs.

“During our retreat, we discussed amending the health department ordinances to bring us current with state regulations. Since that time, our staff has worked to put together several amendments to our ordinances, mainly those concerning food handlers and those regarding public nuisances,” Sonny Wilson, Waxahachie environmental health director, explained to the council.

The most debated of the amendment changes were those concerning the permitting process for food handlers.

Currently, Wilson said Waxahachie and Denton are the only two cities in the state of Texas that require all food handlers to receive an annual medical screening for communicable diseases as a condition of being authorized to work in a restaurant — or to prepare and serve any food for consumption by the public.

Food handlers safety certification

Wilson said it is the recommendation of the city, county and state health officers to shift from the medical screening policy to one that requires food handlers complete a four-hour, state-certified food handlers safety educational course.

Wilson said most problems relating to public health in the food industry stem from improper food handling, not from communicable diseases. He added that it is the opinion of the state, as well as local health officers, that a food safety education program will be more beneficial to public health than the current medical screening.

“There are several issues with current food handlers permit requirement,” Wilson told the council. “First of all, we can test someone today, the test can come back negative and we give them permission to work, then they can contract a communicable disease the next day and work (in a restaurant) for a year before they are screened again.”

Wilson also added the medical screening process is both costly and time consuming, with perspective employees and restaurants having to wait about 10 days before the test results so if they are eligible for employment in food service.

Under the proposed ordinance change, all food handlers would be required to complete the food safety course, which Wilson said is in use by nearly all Texas cities.

“Restaurants like the certification process because it makes it a lot easier to shift employees from one restaurant to another. The certification is good all over the state,” Wilson said. “If you’re certified in Denton or DeSoto, you’re certified in Waxahachie and vise-versa.”

Wilson said he already has a curriculum in place and his department could begin offering courses to area food handlers as early as Oct. 1.

“We would have to phase this in to allow everyone time to complete the food handlers safety course before we make it effective — say Jan. 1,” Wilson said. “What we’re recommending is to offer the course free of charge through that grace period. After it goes into effect Jan. 1, we would continue to provide the training courses but would charge a nominal fee, we’re recommending $20 per person, after Jan. 1.”

Wilson added that all food handlers would be required to receive certification before they are allowed to work in a restaurant or handle food for the public.

“Another thing I would like to see us add is a food safety manager certification that would be required for the manager on duty at all times,” he added.

When queried about restaurant inspections carried out by the city, Wilson said the current policy would not change. All restaurants will continue to be inspected at least twice annually by the city’s health department. In addition to the unannounced health and safety inspection, the restaurant will also be required to provide food handler safety certification cards for each of its employees who prepare and serve food.

“If we receive a complaint, we also conduct an inspection at the time of the complaint. That’s in addition to the two inspections we carry out during the year,” Wilson added.

Mayor Pro-Tem Ron Wilkinson expressed his concern with eliminating the medical screening permit process, especially in light of the resurgence of tuberculosis in the United States.

“I just think it’s a good idea to (continue) the health card policy” in order to protect the public from someone with a communicable disease from preparing food, Wilkinson said.

“It appears the reason why we’re abandoning (the medical screening permit) is because it costs money and the administration doesn’t want to fool with it. I think (the permit) is a protection we deserve,” Wilkinson added. “I’m all for requiring safety education, but I don’t feel we should abandon the public protections we already have in place.”

Wilson informed the council he has polled area restaurant managers and they are strongly in favor of the food handlers’ safety certification policy. He added requiring restaurants to obtain both medical screening and food safety certification for employees would be difficult for those businesses.

Wilkinson added he would be interested to hear an opinion from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta on the matter before feeling comfortable enough to abandon the current policy.

Another problem addressed with medical screening is the number of false positive results with the tuberculosis test. It was explained that, because so many Americans have been exposed to tuberculosis at some point in their lives, many of the basic TB tests come back positive. It is not until additional, more costly tests are done that it is determined that many individuals do not have TB or do not have a communicable strain that poses a risk to others.

The council also discussed the prevision concerning which employees are required to obtain the certification. As written, food handlers are classified as “any person who prepares, serves, packages or handles open food or drink, or who handles clean utensils, pots or single-service.”

Councilor Buck Jordan noted that under this definition, those who bus tables as well as those working as hosts or hostesses are omitted from the certification process.

“We all know that when restaurants get short staffed or in a crunch, those bus boys and hostesses can get pressed into serving as waiters and waitresses — if not cooks,” Jordan said.

The exact wording of the ordinance change reads:

“It shall be unlawful for any person operating or conducting any caf/, restaurant or other public eating place or operating any bakery or meat market, public dairy or candy factory whether mobile or permanent in the city, to fail or refuse to comply with the city health department’s request for a certified or carbon copy of the employees’ completion of the food handlers safety course.

“All food establishments shall keep permanent records of the employees food handler safety course, which records shall be subject to the inspection of duly authorized agents in the city.”

Mosquito control amendments

Other ordinance changes in the health and sanitation code included items concerning mosquito control that will impact residents with pools, spas and areas of water collection on their property.

Amendments to the portion of the code concerning what constitutes a public nuisance has been expanded to include:

The presence of rubbish, brush and any other objectionable, unsightly or unsanitary matter of whatever nature; and, The presence of polluted, stagnant, and/or mosquito larvae infested water located in an above or in ground pool or any other receptacle.

Wilson explained that any water receptacle over 50 gallons must have a circulating and/or flowing water supply, otherwise will be declared a public nuisance.

The amendment also allows the city to charge an administrative fee of the amount of the bill up to $100 per clean-up if the city is forced to abate the nuisance.

Wilson said the code changes are needed to aid in the city’s mosquito control program, as well as handle a number of complaints concerning neglected pools.

“We’ve responded to code enforcement calls on a number of pools where the water was stagnant and the algae was so thick you couldn’t see through the water,” Wilson said. “Not only do they serve as a breeding ground for mosquitoes, but they pose a health hazard in case someone accidentally fell in.”

After much discussion, Jordan made a motion to approve the recommended amendments to the health and sanitation ordinances pertaining to Section 15 of the municipal code.

All of the amendment changes for Section 15 were grouped into one motion, requiring a straight up or down vote.

The motion was seconded by councilor Chuck Beatty and was approved by a 3-1 vote with Wilkinson voting against the measure. Councilor Joe Gallo was absent.

“I agree and support the amendments concerning mosquito control but I’m opposed to changing our current requirements for food handlers,” Wilkinson added.

Coming Thursday: New ordinance amendments concerning junked cars

E-mail Neal at neal.white@waxahachiedailylight.com