Monday, February 4, 2008

Kafka meets local government

The federal government is too distant, right? It's too far removed from the concerns of real people to be responsive to anybody but those with high-level political connections. State government is hardly any better; you're still talking about a distant capital and professional politicians with a taste for boundless power and little concern for the consequences of their actions. But local government -- that's better. You see the city council members at the market, you share a beer with them at the bar -- there's a human connection that makes all the difference, right?

Maybe not. Read on.

The Haunted Hamburger is a destination restaurant in the old mining town of Jerome, Arizona. With stunning views out over the Verde Valley, good burgers and beer, and a location in a borderline ghost town (population in the 1920s: 15,000; population now: less than 500) it's a common place for tourists and locals to end up after strolling through town to gape at abandoned buildings and hit the shops and galleries. Recently, though, the Haunted Hamburger seemed destined to join Jerome's status as the fourth-largest city in the state on the list of do-ya-remember conversation topics.

In an op-ed for the Verde Independent, Haunted Hamburger owner Eric Jurisin details his run-ins with a bureaucracy that's definitely punching above its weight in red tape.

In March 2007 I heard through the "grapevine" that the use of the upstairs of our restaurant had changed, was unsafe, and we were going to be shut down. We thought surely there must be a mistake because diners have been seated in the upstairs of the restaurant for the last 30-some years without incident and with town approval. ...

Finally, in response to our numerous requests, a meeting was held in June at the Haunted Hamburger. We were given a list of four minor corrections to make. We said we would comply to avoid any issues with the town and be certain that our restaurant was safe and open for business. We got a building permit as directed, and completed the work in less than nine days and happily went back to Town Hall thinking this matter was being resolved. We told Jeanne Trupiano, Planning and Zoning director, that all of the work was finished and ready for inspection.

Imagine our surprise when she informed us that although we completed all of the requested work, and the town thanked us for our cooperation, the town decided that the upstairs portion of our restaurant would be closed anyway and we should talk to Fire Chief Molloy.

Thoroughly frustrated, we wrote to the town's attorney, Phyllis Smiley, again asking why the Haunted Hamburger was targeted for closure and what else needed to be fixed. Initially, she was as flabbergasted as we were. She said she would investigate and get back to us. The attorney told us that the fire chief still thought there were building code violations at the restaurant. We asked again what they were. She would not tell us. At this point we had written no less than six letters to the Town asking them to specify their concerns so we could address them. As a last-ditch effort, we went to Chief Molloy offering to sprinkler the building and we were told that was not an acceptable solution.

Did we get a list of what was an acceptable solution? No, instead Chief Muma served me with a criminal citation vaguely alleging our building was unsafe along with an order from the town closing the entire restaurant. The town said the upstairs was unsafe. We were stunned at this turn of events. When we questioned why the entire building was being closed, he replied ... "just the upstairs, for now." ...

Our building was the only one being cited for criminal violations. The town prosecutor, Kenton Jones, was surprised that a criminal citation had been issued by Chief Muma. In spite of Mr. Jones' initial reaction, he could give no specific explanations for charges and refused to dismiss the charges. Having had no success with the town officials or their attorneys, we made a written appeal to the Town Council. Surely, the chief of police and the fire chief could not close our restaurant without an appeal process. The town's attorney rejected the appeal in a one-paragraph letter, saying we needed to appeal to the Appeal Board. The Appeal Board does not exist.

The issue has now been settled for about $50 in repairs to a fire escape and promises of future alterations. In a news account of the settlement hearing, we get a timeline of the dealings between the restaurant and the town leading to the recent conflict:

[Attorney John] Phillips said Jurisin's reputation was tarnished by the town as a "do-nothing merchant" in terms of fire safety, and recited the history of the Haunted Hamburger second floor.

In 1993, the restaurant operator was told that he would need to make a couple of changes in order to seat more than nine customers upstairs. Those changes included roof repairs and the creation of a second fire escape. The town building inspector at the time, Michael Kamrar, also a carpenter, offered to design and build the second fire escape. And in 1994, the emergency exit was "designed, built and approved," he said.

In 2002, the town complained because the fire escape had been built through a bathroom that locked on the inside. Jurisin agreed to take out the bathroom.

Then in 2007, the restaurant started to hear that the town wanted changes again, this time "a four-story fire escape."

Phillips said that there was no notice, no chance for appeal, and no opportunity to talk with town officials when the police chief posted a closure notice. The attorney noted that even though the building code calls for a board of appeal on such town actions, the town has no such board to appeal to.

At that hearing, witnesses for the restaurant include former Town Clerk Al Palmieri and former Fire Chief Dave Hall. Hall's testimony is particularly revealing, since he's the official who signed off on the fire escape that current Jerome officials now find inadequate.

By Hall's own admission, the fire escape he signed off on -- which was designed and constructed by the town building inspector -- doesn't meet code. That means the Haunted Hamburger faced potential closure of the business and repair costs imposed by town officials for code violations that were approved by town officials. Following procedures and getting the proper permissions isn't enough; now town residents are expected to shoulder the burden if the government officials administering those procedures and issuing those permissions violate their own rules along the way.

Damned if you do and damned if you don't.

As for that appeals board that's supposed to handle conflicts between locals and officials but which just doesn't exist? The local paper has editorialized that Jerome just might want to consider giving the thing some life.

There's a lot of romantic talk in American political life about local government being the most responsive and representative level of government -- the one at which most matters should be handled. I think that's probably true -- for what little it's worth. In reality, Eric Jurisin's experience demonstrates that proximity to the people doesn't mean that much. In a town of 500 residents, a savvy and well-established local business owner was still taken on a tour of a bureaucratic maze that could have destroyed him. The sole value of local government in this case was that Jurisin was able to put his reputation to work to drum up public support, and the town of Jerome didn't have the near-endless resources of a state or federal agency to draw on when a legal battle became inevitable.

State, federal, local -- it doesn't matter. When you hand coercive power to government officials, people suffer.

Update: Eric Jurisin, the owner of the Haunted Hamburger, agreed to drop his lawsuit against Jerome and its officials in return for the dismissal of a criminal citation against Jurisin. Legally, the matter has been settled, though it has left bad feelings in its wake. It has also left Jerome saddled with hefty legal fees.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some facts in this case. The article was written by the business owner, not by the local paper, it was in "My Turn" of the editorial section. What was contined therein had little to do with fact.

This matter started with the building inspector who caught the owner doing construction without permits, additionally the business owner equipped his restaurant with 93 seats, well over his posted occupancy of 80. This is a 100 year old building and a potential fire trap.

In April 2007 the owner was written letters seeking correction of the problems, the owner refused to install a proper fire escape and ultimately was issued a citation in July of 2007. More meetings and letters and he refused to budge. He lost his first court hearing in August 2007.

In December of 2007 he filed suite on the town, in the first hearing of that suite the former Fire Chief took the stand (for the business owner mind you) and basically labeled the building a "fire trap".

The two sides agreed to settle, but it was not a $50 fix as the business owner claims. He was required to install a complete fire sprinkler system and build a new metal fire escape. The same thing he was asked to do almost a year before. He cost the town the $20,000 and himself about $130,000 in legal bills.

Oh, buy the way this is not some poor little owner, this man owns four restaurants, multiple homes and other businesses.

He told the building inspector the reason he sued the police chief was because he "hated him" but liked the building inspector. He also told the Fire Chief that he would "bankrupt the town" before giving up a single seat in his restaurant.

Don't judge before knowing both sides of the story. I have the proof if you need it.

Allen Muma, Chief
Jerome Police Department
Jerome, AZ

March 13, 2008 2:15 PM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...


Thanks for stopping by and stating your case.

You're right, Jurisin's piece was, as I identified in my post, an OpEd -- not an objective news article. But the other articles quoted or linked in my post were all news articles. Do you object to the facts as laid out in those pieces?

I'm struck, in particular, by that fact that former Fire Chief Hall testified that he signed off on a fire escape apparently designed an built by the former building inspector, even though the fire escape didn't meet requirements.

Jurisin may not be a "poor little owner" as you say, but it seems beyond a doubt that any business owner, rich or poor, is entitled to know what the rules of the game are, and to be able to rely on the deeds and assurances of public officials.

I note, by the way, that, according to the Verde Independent, $20,000 of Jerome's costs went to "settle" Jurisin's lawsuit against the town. While a settlement may not technically involve an admission of wrongdoing, it usually is an admission that the settling party faces an uphill legal battle.

And what about the appeals board that the Verde Independent suggests that Jerome, at long last, should establish?

March 14, 2008 4:08 PM  
Blogger lovinlife said...

You have got to be kidding!
Someone needs to stand up for Mr Jurisin. Mr Muma is known by some to stretch the truth and thats putting this nicely.

Isn't it amazing that the Fire Dept can give a ticket and make someone pay thousands of dollars to put in a metal fire escape when in the fire station steps from the second floor (and the only way down to the first floor) are made of wood! I did not know this until someone had told me and I checked it out and found it to be true!

Mr Muma stated that letters were written to Mr Jurisin seeking correction of problems, but in Mr Jurisins remarks in the Verde Independent, he stated he had made several attempts to meet with different officials of the town about the problem and they were ignored. I am sure he also has the proof of this.

Mr. Muma has acted as he has been made a victim in this matter! It may be very true that Mr Jurisin
has a strong dislike for Mr Muma. This has not been the first time they have butt heads. Mr Muma has harassed him on several different occasions. Is it no wonder!! Mr Muma does not like Mr Jurisin! It has been this way before this case! No matter what he has said to the contrary! Believe me where the laws apply what is good for one in this town is not good for all.

I have been in this town for a long time. I do not always agree with Mr Jurisin, but he is a business man and his restaurants do well and bring many visitors. He has done well! Yes he is not a poor little owner but he has gotten where he is today with a lot a hard work. When he first came to town he loved Jerome. I just hope he won't give up on this town!

It is such a shame people cannot be happy instead of jealous of someone's sucess. They need to look inside themselves to see that this is the real reason they dislike or disagree with someone.

May 2, 2008 2:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Mr. Jurisin has completed his steel fire escape and installed fire sprinklers in the building as per the settlement. The town got a safer establishment. Is this the end of the story? Probably not.

As for lovinlife and their comments, why not provide your name, or are you just a front person for Jurisin.

Why don't you spend the time and get the real facts instead of labeling somebody a liar. If you had, you would be less likely to judge.

What about the other business owners that abided by the Fire Departments occupancy standards, and the Building Departments regulations, there are plenty of them that get permits when they make alterations, use registered contractors to do the work, and get the work inspected. Why should Jurisin be an exception to the rules.

The Town of Jerome has an obligation to uphold the laws they set, especially when it comes to public safety. That being said, society is full of scofflaws and we have a few in Jerome.

You are right when you say the rules don't apply to everybody equally in Jerome, as there are people that think they don't apply to themselves, and if they have the money, they think nothing of fighting the town.

What was Jurisin's motive in this matter? How about the fact he added about thirty seats to his busy restaurant without having to provide added parking, I guess it's okay that other business owners have been unable to expand their businesses because they can't provide extra parking, there are even properties that have been unable to be developed due to a lack of parking spaces.

Oh, by the way, if you are from Jerome, why not ask the building inspector what Jurisin said to him one day during this mess. That day Jurisin asked the building inspector if he knew why he wasn't named in the lawsuit, when the building inspector replied, "No", Jurisin said, "Because I like you, I don't like f***ing Muma". It was the building inspector that started this whole thing!!!!!

I like the statement Jurisin made to the Fire Chief (a former friend of Jurisin's), Jurisin said "I'll bankrupt this town before I give up a single seat".

I don't hate Jurisin, I feel sorry that somebody with his wealth and business ability has to act the way he does.

Allen Muma

July 10, 2008 10:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan, Alan, Alan,. I am compelled to answer this since you said what you did. Don't you have anything better to do than get on Mr Jurisins case. I am not a front person for Mr. Jurisin. I will not give my identity because you would do to me the same as you are doing to Mr. Jurisin. The town knows you all too well.

The so called remark that Mr Jurisin alledgely called you, well lets just put it this way. You are not the most popular fellow in this town by a good number of our residents. So to put that just on him is not fair!

Please don't comment about the facts. You know as well as I do that once again some of your remarks are not politically correct. You mentioned something about parking. What about Spook Hall? Where is the extra parking to justify its occupancy increase by quite a few people? Oh thats right you are the president of the Historical Society which runs spook hall. It was remeasured and found the occupancy to be incorrect and changed it just in time for our towns Christmas Party. Amazing isn't it. This all happened after the Halloween Party problem and instigated by Mr Malloy, but you cannot tell me there is enough parking in front, on the street or in any of our existing parking lots for the extra amount of people that facility is now to hold. No Way!! But once again what is good for one is not good for all.

Why should Mr Jurisin have to give up any seats in his restaurant? The line to his place is out in the streets sometime. He has one of the most popular establishments in our town. The town would not go bankrupt if they would work with people and keep you out of things. Working out solutions is always best for everyone. As you know it was basically thrown out of court and put in litigation with the town. This is a well known fact around here. So basically if you would have kept your nose out of it, the town would of saved a ton of money. If I remember correctly, you were involved with the Liberty Theater fire escape fiasco as well.

You know as well as I do that occupancy is not always abided with and permits are not always gotten. This is a known fact. I heard you did not have all permits needed for the work you did on your place. But that was just rumor and you know how that is!

This could be the end of the story if you would leave it alone. I don't see Mr Jurisin replying to any of this. I don't even know if he even see's all this. I really don't care. But if he did, don't you think he wants this all behind him. Think of the town instead of your own problem with him. Give it up!! For once take the high road. With the economy and all don't you think the shop owners and all the restaurants need to have a little support instead of all this negativity by our local authorities?

Please don't feel sorry for Mr. Jurisin. He is a business man! Yes he has multiple businesses. But always remember in the restaurant business you may have it today but it may be gone tomorrow. He wants to make sure there is a tomorrow! I would fight for that! Wouldn't you?


August 3, 2008 8:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Muma is all ego and I can't wait until he leaves town so we can have Jerome back. If he isn't bullying one person he is bullying another so he can be the King of Jerome. He uses his authority to get his way, which should be totally illegal. He threatens, yells, positions himself in a way that nobody wants to stand up to him, less than person has enough guts and money to defend themselves - such as Jurisin. Eric has his ups and downs but at least he doesn't have a position of authority to scare people into 'respect.'

October 2, 2008 2:43 PM  
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March 19, 2009 12:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm grateful for Chief Mumas presence and loyalty in serving our town.. I also feel that Terry Molloy was an excellent upstanding Fire Chief who was dedicated to the towns well being and best interest.. I've lived here long enough to comprehend the level of small town hearsay and gossip turned conspiracy.. If anyone needs to be dethroned as King of Jerome it's our arrogant satanic neighbor Maynard Keenan.. His plantation of 666 grape vines and the amount of water needed to irrigate them taken from our towns water supply is ludicrous.. He's a high up member of the Church of Satan and deeply involved in witchcraft and the occult.. Whereas Chief Muma is doing his best to offer his protection and service to the community, Keenan is raping it and has, over time, become an obvious part of the problem.. And not just on a small town scale..

Jerome resident

December 6, 2009 8:16 PM  

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