Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Case of Our Codes Director and Our District Justice

No screen or glass - being held shut with a rubber band.
By now a lot of you know that our municipal Codes Director, Joe Januzelli, was asked to resign this week after an investigation into a house rented without a license by Justice Lawrence. Some of you connected the dots and realized that this was the house I spoke of in a few Diary entries, most recently "Council Disrespects A Resident" from last week.

This is a hard blog entry to write because I can't step back and be an impartial journalist. The house is right next door to mine. I've been watching the tale unfold for over 30 years. I got involved personally this year. So here's what I know. Bear with me, it's a long story.

Thirty some years ago, Fran Lawrence and his family moved in next door to my parents and me. They turned out to be great neighbors. My mom babysat the kids after school until their mom got home. We went to their first communion and graduation parties. We shoveled each other's walks. The Lawrences, especially the kids, were always good to my parents. Fran and his wife came to both my parents' funerals. When they moved, Fran retained ownership of the house and his parents moved in (when I think "Judge Lawrence" I still think of Fran's father first). Fran's parents were two of the sweetest people I've ever met. I used to help Mrs. Lawrence with her garden. After the Judge died and Fran's mom left, his sister Cathy (the councilwoman) lived there. Another good neighbor.

But when Fran began renting the house, as far as I could tell, he stopped doing maintenance on it. And as anyone who owns a house knows, when you ignore little roof leaks or plumbing problems or whatever, they get bigger. Ten years ago, the current resident moved in, a woman in her 70s. She's been a good neighbor, too, though mainly we just stop and chat when we see each other outside. She's mentioned problems with the house over the years, and I could see the deterioration on the outside, but I never thought the problems were all that bad--I figured she would have moved if they were.

Fast forward to last January 6th. We had a terrific windstorm that night, but no rain or snow. My bedroom window faces the house next door. A piece of their aluminum trim was loose and banging around so it kept me up. At some point there was a loud banging and I could see a large heavy piece of their flat roof flapping up and down. I have to admit I didn't even think of the tenant--I was worried it would break off and hit my windows. The next day, thinking I was doing them a favor, I called the Lawrences and left a message about what I'd seen. I figured the next time it rained or snowed, they'd get water in. I'd want a neighbor to do the same for me.

People keep tripping on this and leaving notes on the door about it.
More than a month later, a man came with a latter and climbed up to look at the roof. We'd had a bad icestorm and this guy was walking around on 2 inches of solid ice, 2 stories up. I thought, why would anyone wait until conditions are at their worst to call in a roofer (though if you've dealt with roofers, you know they can put you off for a month before they come out).

But I found out that Fran Lawrence didn't send the guy with the ladder--our Codes Department did. During the icestorm, in the middle of the night, the ceiling in the middle bedroom next door fell in. Luckily, because the roof had been leaking (for years, I found out), the tenant had been sleeping downstairs in an armchair, so she wasn't hurt. She had called 911 when the roof fell in and they sent out the fire department (how I slept through this, I'll never know). The responders informed Codes, not only about the roof but about other violations they saw inside the house. I found out recently that a slew of violations had been cited in February-the only one I know for sure that was fixed right away was the broken furnace, because afterwards I saw smoke coming out of the chimney on cold mornings. But that was when I realized the tenant hadn't had heat in a while because I hadn't seen the smoke in years.

Fast forward again to June. No roofer had shown up. Joe Januzelli was guest speaker at a Norristown Business Association Meeting, so afterward I pulled him aside and told him about next door's roof. I knew code violations had been cited but nothing had been done. He said he'd look into it. The next day someone came out to look at the roof again and within a week or two, a roofer was at work on it. A cellar window that had been broken for years was also fixed. I thanked Joe for interceding when I saw him again.

Overgrown hedge and more broken pavement.
Some other code violations were cited, including a sewage backup in the cellar, but no other work was done on the house in July and early August. The tenant was by now fed up (I would have had much less patience than she had), so she kept bothering Codes and starting asking to see documents like Justice Lawrence's renter's license for the house and the report of the inspection that should have been done before she moved in. Halfway through the month, she got an eviction notice--and the judge who signed it was Lawrence himself. It gave her until August 31, and said she was being evicted because she didn't pay her rent, which wasn't true.

She called the Chief of Judges and asked for a change of venue and a different judge. She got the latter but not the former, so she had to put up with Judge Lawrence's staff being nasty to her (I did, too, because I went to the hearing). Fran wasn't there--he was represented by one of his property managers, Rick Gallo. The tenant said she was happy to leave but needed an extra month to find a new place. In front of the judge, Gallo said he'd give her more time. Outside, in front of no one but me, he said he'd give her until Sept 1, a whole extra day. We finally got him to agree to Sept 30th, but it was verbal and I was the only witness.

I should add that the sewage problem was fixed in a hurry, between the eviction notice and the hearing.

A week later, the tenant received another eviction notice that said Sept 2nd. Also signed by Justice Lawrence. This time the tenant went to that week's council meeting and told them everything. She said she hadn't received the documents she'd requested and that many of the codes violations still hadn't been addressed and many more violations had never been cited. She'd asked for a complete inspection before the hearing, but that Januzelli had refused. The Codes inspector who had been out after the roof collapse had taken lots of photos, but only a few of those photos showed up in the record of the violations.

The tenant called the constable to find out what the procedure for eviction was. He told her he'd gotten a stay on the eviction order. No one ever officially informed the tenant.

I found out later that Council started an investigation that first night. They found that Lawrence had no license for renting the house. They sent an "independent inspector" out to look at the house, but as I said in my blog last week, he did a lousy job. Our borough manager, Crandall Jones, came out to look at the property himself last week and took photos of everything (even a broken piece of my pavement, which I assured him was on our to-do list (in fact, my brother started working on it yesterday)).

That is essentially everything I know firsthand. Honestly, I'm not sure who are the good guys and the bad guys in this mess. Obviously the landlord has to be ultimately responsible for the condition of his property and for procuring the license. I known Judge Lawrence owns at least 4 other properties--I don't know if he has licenses to rent them or not. He also should NOT be signing legal documents in his capacity as judge that relate to his own property or business. That's unethical--might even be illegal. But Norristown Council can't take action against him as a judge. That's up to the Chief of Judges and possibly up to the voters (he's up for re-election in 4 years).

I can't let the property managers, the Gallo brothers, off completely--they knew the condition of the house inside and out (I don't remember seeing Fran go inside the house in ages.) There should be some law that says they can't be complicit in allowing dangerous living conditions in a rental property. Though I don't know if there IS such a law. I do know that the Gallo brothers own and/or manage a lot of properties in Norristown. I hope nothing like this is happening on their other properties.

As for Joe Januzelli, I don't know why he was asked to resign. I do know that the codes violations cited in February were never followed up on. Obvious code violations on the outside of the house, like dangerously uneven pavement and peeling paint and overgrown bushes, hadn't been cited in 10 years. Photos apparently went missing. The full inspection in August SHOULD have been done. Yet I don't believe he'd have been asked to resign merely for not staying on top of things, or even if this was the only case of him looking the other way because he knew the landlord or members of the landlord's family personally. But I don't know anything more and won't accuse him on speculation and hearsay.

Meanwhile, the tenant will be moving, but I still have to live next door to the house in question. I've talked to some of the other neighbors on the block. They all liked the Lawrences and don't understand why the house is being allowed to fall to pieces. They want to see it look presentable again. And for the sake of the next tenant, and close neighbors and their kids, I want to see the house made safe again.


  1. That looks like it's about as objective as you can get when you know the parties involved and the house is next door to you.

    But Fran Lawrence, DJ really should know better than to be involved in any judicial matters of his own property. And now that the cat's out of the bag and the Gallos are involved, perhaps they are the one's responsible to apply for and pay for the rental license and the presence of a license should put it into a notice file so that annually it and all other rental properties are inspected annually for safety. But then, doesn't the Department of Public Safety have a policy that requires all rental properties to be inspected on a regular basis so that the license fee payers get their money's worth lest they are sued for a "failure to provide service", the code inspection of said property.

  2. I recently learned of the Gallo Brothers management style in here in Pottstown. I attended a hearing where they avoided the repair of a dangerously neglected chimney on a rental they own. It was only after a lengthy process of dragging them into court that the Codes office had any impact. Both brothers were served but only one showed and the Judge said he was going to fine the other brother for not appearing and answering and I hope he did - my guess? If the Gallo's can't manage their own properties then it's likely that Fran Lawrence put his trust in the wrong management team. But then, because DJ Lawrence didn't recuse himself is .... very odd, very odd indeed.

    I hope there's a satisfying outcome for you Elena, it's double scary when it's an attached home that's falling apart.