AZ: Debating debris: Two properties condemned; Nerhan questions why investigation occurred
HUACHUCA CITY, ARIZONA -- There is no doubt there is a political split in Huachuca City. The split has led to recall elections, bitter campaigns and occasional outbursts at council meetings.
The split has been evident forat least two years. It has taken many forms and has led to a pair of recall elections. One of the factors in the political debate is Mayor George Nerhan's properties and the possessions on them.
That issue has been present for almost three decades and has been debated for years. It also has been debated in two mayoral campaigns and has been brought up at least a dozen times in council meetings.
Nerhan owns five properties in Huachuca City. He owned all of them before he became mayor.
He used those properties and the possessions on them to provide for his family by creating a surplus business after he retired from the U.S. Army.
Longtime town residents and officials say the debate about Nerhan's property began before he became mayor, but the concerns and complaints took on a life of their own when Nerhan decided to run to become the first elected mayor in the town. Although he's won two elections, the complaints have only become louder.
A few driven residents have repeatedly called for the mayor to clean up his properties. Nerhan has done some cleanup. This year, he has hauled off tons of scrap metal for salvage. But residents continue to ask the mayor to clean up his property.
When the council hired a new police chief, Ed Dobbertin, in August, he immediately received two complaints about alleged violations on the mayor's properties. The chief said it was his responsibility to investigate the complaints.
The result is that two months later, on Thursday afternoon, the town building official, Jim Johnson,condemned buildings on two of Nerhan's properties. The building official says buildings on one property must be torn down, while the buildings on the second property can be saved if repaired.
Nerhan says criticism is politically motivated
Nerhan said the repeated personal attacks are unwarranted and are political attacks by people opposed to him being elected mayor. He pointed out that the two people who filed police complaints, Joanne Ruffner and Bill Stein, a former candidate for mayor and the person who initiated the recall that led to Nerhan's second political victory.
Nerhan said that to be honest, he doesn't understand the concerns. After all, he said he's lived at the same place for almost three decades and has run and operated a surplus business almost the entire time.
"I've been in Huachuca City for 28 years. For 25 years, I've done the surplus business in town," Nerhan said. "The city gave me business licenses and they've collected taxes. It didn't bother anybody for 28 years. All of a sudden in the last two years, it became monumental."
That business has helped him expand his business holdings to include establishments throughout Cochise County and in several other states.
To get money and support his family, Nerhan found the niche market many years ago. He went to auctions throughout the state, bought used items below market value and resold them for a profit. In between, the items were stored on his properties. Those items include cars, bicycles, military surplus, appliances, computers and just about everything imaginable, he said. To this day, Nerhan said, he gets calls from people throughout the nation who are looking for a specific item. More often than not, he has it to sell.
Nerhan still attends auctions on a weekly basis. He still buys items inexpensively and then resells some, although he no longer needs to work at selling them.
His store isn't open anymore, and he doesn't run the operation like a business with regular hours and employees, but Nerhan said he still enjoys it. After three decades, he has no plans to stop.
While he admits his properties may look cluttered, he said he knows where everything is. He said there are no dangers. In 28 years, Nerhan said, he and his family have never been attacked by animals, have never been hurt in the yard and have not been harmed in any way by the things they lived around daily.
"I don't know much about the politics in Huachuca City, but it almost appears to me that there are some motivations that truly have some ulterior purposes," Nerhan's attorney Joseph DeFrancesco said recently.
Nerhan said he made some improvements. At his home, he removed hundreds of tons of items this year and he built a fence around the property. He said he plans to do more. Condemning his property when he claims it puts no one at risk is unwarranted, Nerhan said.
He also said the condition of the Hunt Road property, which the building official claims must be torn down, is partly the town's responsibility. He said that someone else brought the buildings in before he bought the land, with permission of the town. He also said that years back, after he had purchased the property, the state offered the town a grant to repair the properties. To qualify, Nerhan would have had to give the property to the town for 10 years, which he agreed to do to fulfill the requirement. Huachuca City officials turned down the grant, he said.
"He listed it as unsafe for humans. I know and he knows it's not ready for occupancy. The buildings have never had an occupancy permit. It's never been applied for, it's never been asked for," Nerhan said. "There's no electricity, no water, there's no utilities."
Nerhan also pointed out that Cochise County Health Department officials looked at all of his properties within recent months and found minor violations. Under city code, the only way a building can be condemned is if it violates the health codes, Nerhan said, adding that the Health Department has better knowledge of health issues than Johnson.
Nerhan said his biggest concern was what occurred Nov. 6 when town employees searched and photographed his property.
"The police chief entered his property," DeFrancesco said. "This is a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search or seizure. It is in violation of Arizona law and he's trespassing. They violated (Nerhan's) fundamental rights. If they did that to him, they can do it to any citizen in Huachuca City."
DeFrancesco said the investigation itself was ridiculous due to the political mood in the town.
"George's position on this is that given the climate in Huachuca City, if there is something that needs to be investigated on him, it should be passed on to the sheriff, DPS (Department of Public Safety) or someone like that," he said.
"The fact is he's the mayor of the city. He's in a high-profile situation, but he should not be harassed. He has the same rights as anyone who lives in the town. He has the right to be free from illegal search and seizure."
Police department was not involved in decision
Dobbertin said his involvement with Nerhan's property began quickly after he assumed the position of police chief. Two town residents, Stein and Ruffner, filed formal complaints about Nerhan's property. The chief said his responsibility as chief is to fully investigate all complaints, which he set out to do.
He knew it was a political risk, but Dobbertin persisted, saying his investigation would once and for all settle the issues resolving the mayor's properties.
Dobbertin said his concern was to find out whether or not Nerhan, as a private citizen, was violating the town code.
"Under the town code, you can't put debris on property or litter," Dobbertin said a week before the Town Council voted to fire him. "The definition of debris is pretty broad. I think anyone in town would say the mayor has debris on his property."
Dobbertin said his investigation had nothing to do with Nerhan being the mayor, but was simply the proper way to handle the complaints he received.
"This is not an issue of him being the mayor, and me trying to investigate him," Dobbertin said. "This is him being a part-time mayor, but a full-time property owner, a taxpayer and a resident."
To remove any hint of impropriety, Dobbertin said he and his department would not make a decision based on their investigation. Instead, he would pass information to a neutral agency to review and make an impartial decision.
"I'm going to collect all of the information," he said. "I'm going to file all this into a report and will forward it to the county attorney or the attorney general for a decision."
Before he could do that, the council fired Dobbertin on Thursday. Nerhan was not present at the meeting when the council made the decision.
Building Official Johnson condemned properties
Johnson has worked for the town since 1995 and has heard concerns about Nerhan's properties virtually the entire time. He admits he began investigations into Nerhan's holdings many times, but added he never was able to take final action.
"It's been a long ongoing process. It's been going on for years and years and years," Johnson said. "It needed to be a group effort. To be honest, I wasn't going to stand out there alone. I needed some support, and I was finally getting that."
Johnson said he has looked at Nerhan's properties in the past, taking photos and filing reports. None have been followed up on until now. On Nov. 6, Dobbertin, Johnson and police officer Viwat Noga went onto Nerhan's five properties, walked through them and took photos. Johnson used that information to conclude that buildings on at least two of the properties needed to be condemned.
On Thursday, Johnson and Dobbertin went onto the properties and posted notices. On the Hunt Road property, Johnson posted a notice of condemnation with removal. A property on Huachuca Boulevard received a condemnation with repair notice.
Johnson said the moves were not in any way political, but were an example of him doing his job.
"You look at the building as a whole, the foundation, the roof, the walls," Johnson said. "Are they rapidly deteriorating? You look at it all and make a determination. My professional opinion, as building official, was to condemn the one property with removal. The buildings are not salvageable."
Johnson said his decision is based on sound, scientific information and years of experience in the inspection business. He said that if Nerhan disagrees with his assessment, he can appeal. In Huachuca City, the town can set up a Board of Appeals to hear arguments if Nerhan so chooses.
"The processes will go through," Johnson said. "If he doesn't conform, it will go to the judge or the Superior Court."
Despite Dobbertin's dismissal, Johnson said he will continue his investigation with the intent of enforcing town codes.
"I will continue to do my job as building official," Johnson said. "Whatever notices I feel need to be posted will be posted by law. As for my job as building official, I will continue to do it."
Johnson said that while Nerhan deserves some of the blame for the deterioration of buildings he owns and the debris on his property, there is another villain in the story -- the town of Huachuca City.
"You also look back the other way, too," Johnson said. "The city should have been addressing those issues from the very beginning, rather than looking the other way."
cited its concerns
When county Supervisor Les Thompson received a complaint about Nerhan's properties, he asked the Health Department to look into it. On Sept. 23, Nerhan opened up all his properties and escorted Juan Alegria, an environmental health specialist, through them.
The Health Department released a report showing that its primary concerns were old tires on the property and refrigerators not secured shut. They demanded that both issues be dealt with immediately, and Nerhan said he has complied.
The Health Department also asked that the properties be cleaned up, but noted extensive work has been done. Nerhan was given 30 days to six months to comply with various portions of the agreement. Nerhan said he has fully complied with the early portions and will do exactly as asked in regard to the remaining infractions.
Two HC citizens are
concerned with dangers
Ruffner and Stein have consistently led the citizen charge to have the mayor clean up. While both are past political opponents -- Ruffner challenged Nerhan for mayor in 2000 and Stein initiated a recall in 2001 -- they say their concerns are not political.
"My biggest concerns and fears about Mr. Nerhan are actually quite simple. I am concerned about the health and safety of his properties," Ruffner said. "Mr. Nerhan's five properties in town are not only an eye sore, but also put everyone at high risk of being hurt. This has been allowed to continue for too long.
"Nerhan's properties scare me every day. Had I known about the properties before I bought my house, I might not live four houses down from him. There are things on his properties that need to be stored in secure places. They need to be handled properly and not just dumped there. The buildings are falling down, and because of their age, they are sure to have lead-based paint on them."
Stein said he and Ruffner have many of the same concerns. He said he has been complaining for many years, but even as a councilman, he was unable to force a change.
"I went to George's house while campaigning for a seat on Town Council. While the inside of the house was nice, the outside was four-and-a-half acres of stuff," Stein said. "In fact, his stuff overflowed to the center of the road. I started to inquire as to why he was allowed to have commercial storage in a residential area. I was told that he was grandfathered in, before zoning was established in the town. Now some things are not grandfathered in, like fire hazards, vermin habitat and potential deathtraps for children.
"On the property he lives at, the grass and weeds grew to 6 feet tall, creating a nice place for snakes, skunks and other vermin, and there were unbanded or unlocked refrigerators and freezers," he continued. "I did file a written complaint on George Nerhan's properties. My reasons are that properties in that condition present a fire hazard, vermin hazard, danger to children and devalue the property in the rest of the town. The bottom line is, I want to see the town of Huachuca City improving, not going downhill."
Some citizens are not bothered by property
Not everyone in town represents the same views as Ruffner and Stein. In fact, Nerhan said the election results show that the majority do not, since his property was made a key issue in his two successful mayor's campaigns.
Nataesha Brown, one of the mayor's sympathizers, said she has never attended a council meeting, has never spoken up and has only met the mayor three times.
"I don't know what all the fuss is about," Brown said. "I've seen his property, and it doesn't bother me at all. I live pretty close by and I'm not scared at all. I wish they'd just leave him alone. He's a nice man, he's very generous and if you need help, he's always willing to help out."
Dave Perry, the mayor pro tem, has long been a supporter of Nerhan. He said that if Nerhan's properties are in violation of code, then they should be cleaned up.
"The main thing to keep in mind is that the properties have been there for 20 years or so, and that it can't be cleaned up in a short time," Perry said. "The mayor has taken steps to improve the appearance of the properties and is working at this time to continue to have them cleaned up."
Nerhan says he will
continue clean-up efforts
Nerhan said he has started to clean up all of his properties and will continue to do so, but his efforts will never satisfy some people in town.
"We worked all spring and only stopped when it got too hot to work," he said. "I've already started cleaning up more now that the weather has cooled off. It will get done, it will just take some time."
Johnson said the turmoil surrounding the issue presents Nerhan with an opportunity few public officials ever have.
"When you become a mayor or any public official, you have obligations. You're life becomes an open book," he said. "George needs to lead by example. He needs to clean up his property. We have no complaints about George wanting to be a businessman. That's the American dream. There are many items on those properties that are worth selling.
"I think Huachuca City would really straighten up. It would really become a shining light if George would take the lead and clean up. I think he has a golden opportunity where he could have a neat surplus store. But you still have to be neat and orderly. Public safety is still the No. 1 thing. Even George's safety is a priority."
Herald/Review reporter David Rupkalvis may be reached at (520) 458-9440
Ext. 180 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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