Following a state decision to revoke the license of Hamilton Township’s health officer due to lagging restaurant inspections, the township health department reported last month that it had inspected less than 40 percent of the food retail establishments in Hamilton so far in 2019.

The state Department of Health has notified Hamilton Township health officer Jeff Plunkett of its intention to revoke his health officer license. (File photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Township environmental health specialist Lisa Surtes appeared before the township council during its Aug. 20 meeting, and said the health office had checked for violations at 185 of the 510 businesses in the township that sell food. (This includes schools, churches, retailers and other entities—not just restaurants.) Surtes assured the council—which serves as the township board of health—that she had confidence the township would inspect all 510 by the end of the year.

This would be a change from last year, when the township did not inspect two-thirds of the food retail locations in Hamilton in 2018, according to the township’s food safety database.

The health department has been under scrutiny for more than a year, first because of conditions at the township animal shelter and now due to questions about how it inspects food retail establishments.

In May, Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo J. Onofri announced that township health officer Jeff Plunkett, 62, and Todd Bencivengo, 56, each had been charged with two counts of third-degree animal cruelty and one count of second-degree official misconduct. Bencivengo retired in March as the supervisor of the Hamilton Township Animal Shelter.

Then, on July 10, the New Jersey Department of Health notified Plunkett of its intent to revoke his license, citing a failure to ensure safe and sanitary conditions at restaurants and the animal shelter in the township. Plunkett appealed the decision. No hearing had been scheduled yet, as of Aug. 22, according to the state Office of Administrative Law.

Hamilton Township Mayor Kelly Yaede said in July that DOH’s argument is misleading because state and township codes do not explicitly require a restaurant be inspected annually. Instead, she said, it is the township’s understanding that the health department may inspect a restaurant as often as it deems necessary.

This contradicts a statement made by Plunkett in December 2014, when he claimed township inspects every restaurant in Hamilton twice a year. Yaede also said, in an interview with the Hamilton Post, that Plunkett told the township board of health as recently as February 2019 that every attempt is made to inspect “major facilities” within the township every year. She did not specify what qualifies a business as major.