Officer: Connellsville code enforcement can get complicated
As Connellsville's code and zoning officer, Tom Currey must enforce the ordinances adopted by the city, even though they may seem petty to those he cites.
Currey of Upper Tyrone understands that always places him in the middle, with unhappy people on both sides.
Joseph Pancella, who works at Atkins Music Store in downtown Connellsville, had approached council about Currey.
In a recent telephone interview, Pancella complained Currey is “terrible for Connellsville.”
Currey had cited Pancella for allowing a cat to run free. Pancella said he did not know why he was cited since he does not own the cat. He complained that Currey goes after “old women and poor people.” He had posted his concerns on the Facebook page for Atkins Music Store. More than 250 people viewed the information.
Pancella claimed Currey acts like a “bully,” scaring those whom he approaches.
Pancella said he was approached about the cat by Currey, who he said walked into the business with his hand on his gun.
Currey said he had no choice in whether he should cite Pancella. He received three complaints about the cat being loose. He said he issued the citation to Pancella after warning him several times about letting the cat loose.
“I issued them several warnings,” he said, adding that he had done so over a six-month period.
He said he saw Pancella open the rear door to the business and the cat was let loose.
Currey said the ordinance does not distinguish between a property owner and the owner of a cat, so he issued Pancella a citation saying he let the cat run at large.
“He thought I was persecuting him,” Currey said. “That's his opinion, and he's allowed to have that. All I can do (write on the citation) is, I observe a behavior that is in violation of the black and white of the ordinance. I don't get to say ‘Now, does that make sense in this case?' I don't get to say that. ‘Is this cat a nice cat?' I don't get to say that. ‘Is this cat hurting anybody?' I don't get to say that. The ordinance doesn't say anything about hurting anybody. The ordinance says you don't get to let your cat run at large, period.
“Now, Mr. Pancella is allowed and he chose to plead not guilty to that citation, which is his right,” Currey continued. “He is allowed to have his say in his day in court. And what the court system is there to say is, ‘Hey look, this law doesn't make sense. It's stupid. It does not apply.'
“In this particular case, Judge (Ronald) Haggerty said, ‘I agree with you partially.' And what he said was, ‘I'm not going to find you guilty of letting a cat run at large unless there is an injured party.' ”
Currey said Haggerty came back and said the ordinance was too restrictive, that it doesn't make sense.
“I have to find an injured party for him to find somebody guilty of this offense,” Currey said. “How it stands now is that is the new burden. If somebody else called me and said, ‘I want to complain about a cat,' the first question out of my mouth would be, ‘Would you be willing to testify in a court of law against them for letting their cats run out?' If the answer is no, then I don't have an injured party that I can produce. So then my hands are tied.”
Currey said the damage to “injured party” is property damage. For the city to correct the ordinance, it needs to broaden the language to include the need for testimony from an injured party. This does not mean the ordinance is wrong; it needs to include the injured-party clause.
Currey said city council can appeal the judge's decision to the Court of Common Pleas.
“So far, the city has chosen not to do that (appeal), and I don't get to decide that,” Currey said. “My specific job is literally that I only can enforce what is in black and white, what is written down. It's very defined. That's all I can do.”
Currey's job perception
The case is an example of how Currey perceives his job.
“The way I look at it is, I enforce everything the police don't want to enforce or have the ability to enforce or the time to enforce,” Currey said. “The police are busy enough dealing with people. They don't want to deal with, you know, someone's gutters falling off their house. That's what I do.
“I also inspect restaurants, make sure they're complying with all of the pertinent food laws. There's a little bit to that. I also do the building ordinances, enforce all of the zoning ordinances.”
“Council writes ordinances,” Currey said. “They come up with these laws. Sometimes the state tells them what these laws have to be (examples: the food code and the building code, storm water management and flood plain). Most of the codes come from the city.
“Once these laws are passed, it falls to me to enforce them. I don't get to decide if the law makes sense or not. I enforce what is printed in black and white in that ordinance.”
Currey said nearly all of his work begins when he receives complaints.
“Most of them, 95 percent of what happens here is that somebody calls up and says, ‘Hey, look. I've got a problem with ...' and they fill out a form. They fill it out and off we go. We go out and take a look and see what's going on there.
“Sometimes those complaints can vary. It depends on what their issue is.”
Currey said one common complaint is high grass. The standard in the city is 12 inches, according to the ordinance.
“You're allowed to have vegetation up to 12 inches,” Currey said. “Now, what do I mean by vegetation? I mean grass. I'm not talking about the trees you planted. I'm not talking about flowers you planted. If you intentionally planted a garden, corn, you're allowed to have that over 12 inches. It's the in-between stuff, the grass stuff, the stuff you didn't mean to do, didn't try to do.”
When the city gets a complaint that someone's grass is more than 12 inches high, then Currey gets the address and visits the location.
“There is some law there; curtilage is the term that I'll use,” Currey said.
(Curtilage is defined in The Free Dictionary, online, as the area, usually enclosed, encompassing the grounds and buildings immediately surrounding a home that is used in the daily activities of domestic life. A garage, barn, smokehouse, chicken house, and garden are curtilage if their locations are reasonably near to the home. The determination of what constitutes curtilage is important for purposes of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of a person and of his or her home or property.)
“There is an expectation of privacy,” Currey said. “But we do have a right to walk up to the front door, to knock on the front door and talk to the people.”
Currey talks to the people to find out why the grass has not been cut. From that, he gets an idea of when the owners will attempt to cut the grass. If they say, for example, that it will be cut in the next five days, he may check back at the end of that period to see if the problem has been corrected. If it has not, then Currey will make a formal notification in writing to the property owner that the correction must be made.
“I've got to point out why we were there in the complaint. I've got to point out the violation. I've got to give specifics,” he said.
In that notification is the time limit of when the correction must be made. He also tells them what will happen if the correction is not made.
In the case of the grass, the city may cut it at the owner's expense and/or a citation may be issued. If so, the property owner may plead guilty or not guilty and take the case to court. They also have the right to appeal the citation to the city health board in writing, usually within 20 days. He also puts that in the letter. He said it is a structured letter. He said he does not get to deviate.
Currey then returns to the property, say, after 10 days. If the grass is not cut, then Currey may issue a citation.
The property owner then has so many days to plead innocent or guilty. If the choice is innocent, he may go before the judge and give his reasons for not complying with the order. If the judge agrees, the charges may be dropped. If not, the judge may tell the property owner he still has so many days to get the grass cut. Or the judge may fine the property owner.
Currey said he has no say in the judge's decision.
“In a more complicated case, what does that mean? Well, it can get tied up pretty long,” Currey said.
One example of a case tied up in court is the property at 105 W. Crawford Ave. Currey said the health board had been working with the owner for about a year and a half over four properties in the city. He had worked out an agreement where he would begin fixing up the properties, one at a time, until all four were fixed.
“The board of health ultimately was not happy with (his) progress on the original property, so they had me go through and cite him,” Currey said.
When a property citation is under appeal, Currey said the city cannot touch it, unless there is some sort of imminent life or health safety issue.
“That process can take a long time,” he said.
In the case of the 105 W. Crawford Ave. property, the owner got a demolition permit. Currey said he must then give the property owner the length of the permit to do something. That permit is due to expire on Aug. 7. If the building is not demolished by then, Curry said he can begin issuing citations on Aug. 8 and continue to issue citations every day until the building is taken down.
Currey said the city has been “more than reasonable” with the time limit on the structure.
According to Currey, enforcement of property problems is similar to that with the cat.
“I can reinforce what is written down in black and white. Is there some interpretation in those ordinances? Sure, yes. Do I get to interpret a little bit? Sure, yes, but, little tiny bits. I don't get to pull out segments from a sentence. I have to take the whole sentence.”
He said a lot of people will read through an ordinance and just pull a phrase, what they like that applies to them.
“I don't get to do that,” he said.” So you'll go out there and talk to people and talk to lots of people and they'll say, I'm not doing stuff fast enough, fair enough. And the flip side is, I'm too aggressive. I'm too mean.”
Currey said that on one side are those who want him to get the problem solved. “The answer is, we are. But my hands are tied by the court system.”
On the other side, he said some people (on social commentary websites) say maybe he's doing too much. “Well, yes, maybe I am because I'm taking people to court and they have to go to court. They don't see it. And so it is a lengthy process.
“These are not criminal infractions. These are nontraffic citations,” he said.
In addition to an appeal to the court for property code violations, the owner can appeal to the health board.
The zoning ordinance has the zoning hearing board for the appeals process. The planning commission has its appeals process.
“You have the council, who passes the laws. You have me, who enforces the laws as written. Then you've got the court system or the appeals to the board. I get stuck in the middle. That's the nature of the beast, and I get that.
“The problem with perception is that people want to see results now. Unfortunately, this business does not drive results now. It is a lengthy process.
“The goal of the city is not to cite people. I don't want to write somebody a ticket. I don't want to have to take them to court. It doesn't accomplish anything. If they're found guilty, that's money the city gets, yes, but it could be spent making that property better. We try very hard to not do that.”
According to Currey, he writes an average of about one citation per day. But some are repeat tickets on the same violation. He is not writing tickets to 350 individual owners.
Currey's superiors disagree with Pancella on his job performance.
Councilwoman Marilyn Weaver and Health Board President Dr. Dale Cadwallader both say he does “an excellent job.”
Weaver said Currey is thorough in providing evidence whenever he writes out a citation, including detailed charges and often attaching photographs.
Karl Polacek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.