How the Slumlord Beats the City Every Time

City inspectors have written Jack Topletz and his family thousands of tickets for miserable conditions in their rent-house empire. They say they've ended up paying, oh, once or twice.

Over the past six months, there have been shake-ups in the city's code-enforcement operations and assignment of a new lead prosecutor at the municipal courts.

Code enforcement, which has been reorganized into a new department, started getting some attention after a series of critical audits began in 1997. The audits detailed code-enforcement officials owning substandard properties, inspectors with criminal backgrounds, a lack of educational standards for new hires, poor training, and outdated policy manuals. And tucked well into the back of one of the reports by City Auditor Robert Melton was the conclusion that the city does not use its power to write citations to crack down on repeat offenders.

"You know, for years they hired the ladies to investigate these code cases, give 'em a ticket book, and tell them go out and write tickets. There was no training," says Judge Solis.

"I must tell you, though. The council is responding to these concerns. Code enforcement has a training academy now, just this year. Hopefully, in the next few months we'll start seeing results."

And at the S.A.F.E. team, procedures have clearly been tightened up.
Since early 1998, not long after Page wrote her memo on procedures, all Topletz cases have been assigned to one detective, one code inspector, and one fire inspector. They say they are researching property titles and attempting to be meticulous in giving proper legal notice.

At present, the Topletzes are given 10 days' notice to fix problems before a ticket is issued. A year ago, they were given 30, but nothing was being done, police say. "We have gotten back one or two letters where they say they are not in violation," says Detective Michael Ozga, the S.A.F.E. team detective assigned to the Topletz cases. "Some of these houses we've been at continuously since '97, and we still are finding [code] violations."

Occasionally, he says, they will see a couple of things repaired. And they aren't piddling problems, Hearn and Ozga say.

"We have a lady living in a house with her children. The windows are nailed shut. There's hog wire over the glass. No smoke detectors, and probably for the last six months there's been no electricity because of a wiring problem," says Hearn. "This isn't nitpicking...We have people telling us, 'Get these drug dealers out of our neighborhood. The drug dealers from the Topletz house came and shot up our house.' We have people crying to us to come and help clean up their neighborhood."

But back at the Fellini film on the corner of Harwood and Main, something always seems to be working in the Topletzes' favor.

Ozga, who has been assigned to the Topletz beat for a full 17 months, says none of the hundreds of cases he's helped prepare on the family's houses has made it to trial.

"It's such a maze. They know how to work the system," says Hearn. "They're pretty adept at it."

Says Ozga, "It's a little frustrating. I've been dealing with these since January '98, and I've expended a lot of my manpower. We don't know why tickets get dismissed."

"It is frustrating," adds Hearn. "We aren't trying to target anybody. We are trying to help clean these neighborhoods up. The neighbors are being victimized. The tenants are the ones who are victimized. They are trapped in this situation.

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