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Seniors home closed, but debate isn't

Countryside Manor says it shouldn't have been closed. The county will look at its own procedures, and it will also question steps the state took in the closing.

Countryside Manor closed its doors almost one week ago, but debate about that closure remains wide open.

That much was clear Tuesday, when the County Commission reviewed what happened to the assisted living facility and its 32 elderly residents.

The state issued an emergency order Sept. 6 suspending Countryside's operating license. The reason: Countryside, despite repeated warnings over several years, failed to install a fire safety sprinkler system, endangering residents.

As they have in the past, the ALF's leaders on Tuesday blamed Ken Clamer, who coordinates the county's fire prevention staff, for pushing the state to take such drastic action.

Countryside maintains that it was making reasonable efforts for sprinkler installation and, in the meantime, taking extraordinary safety measures to protect residents. The ALF's leaders said Clamer's call for sanctions or closure of Countryside was heavy-handed.

"You need to understand that this is a strong example of misuse of a county position," Countryside's administrator, Laurene Holder, told commissioners.

Clamer didn't attend the commission meeting, but he probably could feel the heat miles away in his office west of Inverness. Richard Wesch, the interim county administrator, stuck up for him.

"I do not see this as a case of an over-zealous fire inspector," Wesch told commissioners. He said it would be "wholly inappropriate" to blame Clamer for the repeated failures of Countryside and its owner to comply with state safety law.

Commissioners instructed staff to prepare a written review of what happened with Countryside and an explanation of the county's steps in inspecting the ALF and pushing for the state-required sprinkler system.

But that wasn't all. They also want the state to explain why the 32 residents received no advance notice of the shutdown and were required to relocate immediately.

"I was shocked when I read the order," County Attorney Larry Haag said.

"The way it was handled leaves a lot to be desired," Commissioner Jim Fowler said.

Pat Glynn, a spokesman for the Agency for Health Care Administration, told a reporter Tuesday that Countryside was allowed to remain open while its staff helped relocate residents.

But he noted that immediate action was required because residents are in danger. And he, like Wesch, noted that Countryside's owner knew what was required.

The explanation probably wouldn't be of much comfort to Fay Wagner, who also addressed the commission Tuesday. Wagner received a telephone call at 9:45 a.m. Sept. 7 informing her that her 85-year-old mother had to leave Countryside immediately.

"This is heartbreaking for these people," Wagner said.

Commissioner Vicki Phillips suggested that the commission ask Citrus County's state legislators to consider addressing the way such emergency orders are enforced.

Commissioners also want to know why the facility to which two Countryside residents were transferred is allowed to operate even though it does not have a sprinkler system.

Clamer said in an interview that his office works with ALFs, as it did with Countryside, to establish reasonable deadlines for sprinkler installation.

He also noted that the ALF now housing the two former Countryside residents is not required to have a sprinkler system because its evacuation plan and capability are sufficient.