Who's in charge? Who's in charge? Are you responsible? I'm not responsible.
-- John Cale
The words of Lewis Lamb, the chief assistant district attorney from the Southwest Judicial Circuit, were ominous.
"If (businessman Chris McLendon, who faced charges of operating a business without a license in Lee County Magistrate Court Tuesday of last week) had not been charged as he was, we would not be talking right now," Lamb said during a break in the proceedings. "If the only complaint against him was that his deer processing facility was unsanitary, there would have been no hearing.
"There would have been no charge."
McLendon, a Cataula businessman who opened the Hardwoods Deer Processing facility on Philema Road in Lee County at the start of the 2011-12 deer hunting season, agreed to a deal in which he offered a no-contest plea to the business license charge. He was fined $700 -- the maximum allowed by a county ordinance, plus $200 in state "add-on" fees -- and the case was over.
Lee County Chief Marshal/Code Enforcement Officer Jim Wright, whose office brought charges against McLendon and Hardwoods manager Joe Aldridge, was left shaking his head after the hearing. He noted that, on the one hand, he was proud of the teamwork among personnel in his office, state Department of Natural Resources officers and the county's Inspections department, teamwork that he said Tuesday "put an end to rotten meat in that facility."
But Wright and others in the community were frustrated by what Lamb called a "crack" in the system that provided no legal options even though Hardwoods was charged with storing tainted meat.
"There is no other public recourse for people who may have been impacted," Lamb said after ensuring that a maximum fine was part of McLendon's plea deal. "Because this case involves wild game, the health department does not inspect (a deer processing) facility. That's left to DNR, but once they make an initial inspection and issue a permit, they do no other (regular) inspections.
"It's one of those situations that falls through the legal cracks."
Wright had recruited three witnesses -- Tommy Hancock, Richard Mears and Lee Sheriff's Office Deputy Chris Eubanks -- to testify that Backwoods had processed and kept tainted deer meat in its coolers. Wright also said DNR investigators had recorded a roughly 20-minute video that supported the claim.
"I was under the impression the witnesses and DNR (officials) would be allowed to testify," Wright said after Tuesday's hearing. "I'm disappointed that they were not. We were told that the only charge that could be brought against Mr. McLendon was operating a business without a license."
Hancock, a surgical technician, said he had left two deer at Hardwoods that, when he picked up the processed meat, were tainted.
"I got two rotten deer from there, and I'm a little disheartened that I wasn't allowed to tell that in court (Tuesday)," he said. "It's unsettling to hear that there's no regulating agency to protect citizens from this type of thing. Anybody, apparently, can open a business like this and offer unsanitary meat to the public. And, trust me, I'm in the medical field, and I know unsanitary conditions.
"If nothing else comes of this, I'd like to see some regulation that would require wild game processors to go through some type of regular inspection."
McLendon, meanwhile, insists there was no tainted meat stored in Hardwoods' coolers, and he hinted that he might take further action to clear his name.
"It gripes me because I know I did the right thing here," he said. "At some point, I'll prove that, one way or another. ... I'll talk with my attorney about what options I have."
In this age of new activism, many complain that the various national, state and local government agencies have overregulated citizens to the point of intrusion. But the lack of oversight in cases like this swings so far counterpoint that it borders on neglect.
How can state and regional health officials pass off inspection of facilities that handle and process wild game solely to DNR simply because the hunting of such animals is regulated by that agency? Cleanliness, it would seem, is a constant, no matter the food product in question.
And while it is evident that manpower reduction has severely limited the DNR, if the agency is to regulate facilities that store and process wild game meat that is consumed by the public, surely more regular inspections are in order.
This is one crack in governmental oversight that must be fixed, or such claims as the one brought against Hardwoods will become even more commonplace.
Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at email@example.com.