Lawnmower Man vs. Corrupt City Hall

This is a story of one man trying to make his dreams come true only to be harassed by a local government out of control. This is the story of Jerry Laza and his stand against an out of control City Hall.  Jerry Laza has repeatedly been harassed by a local government out of control.  This is the story of how he took a stand against a “land grab” three times.

 

At 23 years old, Jerry Laza had a dream to have his own lawn mower shop. This young man looked around Palestine to see if his dream could be realized and noticed that Halls Repair, a small engine repair shop, had closed due to the owner’s death.

 

Laza approached the property owner, Mrs. Elizabeth Neal, with a mutually beneficial proposal. The year was 1988-1989 and the location was 302 E. Crawford in Old Town Palestine.  This is currently the location of the “Pint and Barrel” restaurant and draft house.

 

Mrs. Neal took a chance on Laza, agreeing to a monthly rental fee and that Laza could have all the items on the property if he’d repair and maintain it. Laza began creating a business, adapted the property to his needs and business was good!

 

In 1990 he was able to purchase the property from Mrs. Neal.

 

From 1990-1995 Laza was able to operate his business and do fairly well in peace making a business presence in the town and filling a vital role for the community who needed lawnmower, chainsaw and small engine repair.

 

Beginning in 1995, however, the City began an ordinance violation campaign against Laza. He was harassed by city officials because “someone” disliked the appearance and use of his property. Although the property use hadn’t changed and grandfather clauses applied, efforts were made to satisfy the City but proved unsuccessful.  The harassment came to a head in 1997 when the Fire Marshall and Laza had a dispute.  While making efforts to come into compliance with ordinances it left his property open for constant inspections by the Fire Marshall.  During one of these inspections the Fire Marshall started writing down VIN numbers off personal items in Laza’s shop.  Laza asked the Fire Marshall to leave. The Fire Marshall ordered Laza to vacate the building because it was going to be condemned. Laza emphatically refused to vacate his property. The City proceeded to cut off his gas, power and water.

 

What is an independent and resourceful man to do when the City is being unreasonable? Laza’s business became a self-sufficient, off-the-grid location. Without the City’s knowledge, after hours and under cover of darkness, he spent countless hours digging, by hand, water well on the property which is still on the property today. He then built a homemade diesel generator from the so called “junk” on his property. With these items he was fully self-sufficient and continued his business with no problem.

 

Also during this time period some private citizens started a movement toward Historical Preservation in the City of Palestine.  1992 saw the creation of New and Old town & the Preservation Handbook. In 1997 a Preservation Tax Abatement was approved.  1998 Historic Districts were created and many properties were adopted into the National Registry including Shelton Gin.  Laza’s Property was located next to Shelton Gin. The Lawn mower shop was at one time the only operating business in the (Hollow) “Old Town” Historic District.

 

In 1998, Laza repaired lawn equipment for a customer. The customer, Norman Mollard, just happened to be heading the movement for Palestine Historical Preservation and was a major force behind the creation of “Old Town”.  Laza was invited to his house for a party that weekend on a local lake. Laza knew Mr. Mollard was a local flying ace, so Laza flew his personal float plane and parked it at the Flying Ace’s dock. This caused quite a stir and gave Laza and the Flying Ace some common ground. Who knew Laza was so cool and interesting? Things seemed cordial but the Flying Ace began to show he had an agenda. Laza found himself at a picnic table with several local people along with Mr. Mollard discussing the needs of Palestine. One item of discussion was the best way to address the situation of the homeless folks sleeping downtown. After listening intently, Laza offered his solution to the problem.  He would buy four large tents from the Army/Navy store and erect them in his parking lot. Then he would build an old-fashioned two-hole outhouse complete with a little half-moon cut out in the door.  To help even more, Laza said he would go across the street to Kroger’s to buy one-gallon Ziploc bags and fill them with a tooth brush, toothpaste, a bar of soap and a wash cloth to hand out to all the homeless he could invite to stay in the tents in his parking lot. They could live on his property and bathe in the creek that runs beside the property.

 

Bright and early Monday morning, the Mr. Mollard made a point to visit Laza and offered a deal for the property. They could trade properties. There was a building and land at 1101 W. Oak that could be swapped for the Crawford Street location. It took several months, but eventually, the property on E. Crawford (that has housed a couple of businesses, and is now Pint and Barrel Draft House) was traded for 1101 W. Oak, the former International Harvester dealership.

 

In 1998 – Laza started his move to 1101 W. Oak, where his shop is presently located. As soon as he began to unload his trailers, the City was there to start with ordinance violations.  Laza discontinued the move and said that he would just return to the previous location on Crawford. Amazingly, and very quickly, the City granted Laza his own variance for outdoor storage and rezoned a lot on Fort St. to commercial from residential. Laza moved seventy-three trailer loads of mowers and shop supplies through the next several weeks. Laza slowly started renovating and repurposing the Old International Harvester building by taking the boards off the windows and replacing all the broken glass, cleaning up the interior and making it work for a small engine repair shop.

 

Who would have ever guessed that it would appear private citizens and non-profits could have such control over local government in a way that it would suggest that they could influence actions of the City Employees to get what they want without paying a fair market value.  If Laza had not stood up for his right to be there and endured years without the comforts of water and electricity that “Old Town” building would have been “taken” by condemnation and with no other recourse sold for way less than market value or donated to the newly formed non-profit “Old Town Palestine Revitalization Fund” (a sub-fund of the Texas Area Fund Foundation). How convinent?

 

2006 was a repeat of 1995-1998. The City once again started writing violation citations. The citations included incorrect outdoor storage, lack of privacy fencing, and improper use of zoning to operate a Junkyard (which is not what he operates.) The City took the harassment one step farther and sued Laza in Municipal Court.

 

Laza offered to settle out of court to save the City money and time. He would put up a privacy fence, move the items behind the fence, add hedges and shrubbery for beautification and maintain the property, all at his own cost, if the City did not proceed with the court case and incur Lawyer fees. He warned that if the city proceeded with the case, and it was ruled in his favor by the jury, that he would use every square inch of his property to the maximum allowable by the City’s own adopted ordinances.

 

The City picked court instead of working with Laza… The jury trial resulted in the court finding in Laza’s favor.

 

Through the Municipal Court proceedings and a Jury Trial the case was ruled:

  1. He had variances of outdoor storage, going all the way back to his move in 1998
  2. The privacy fence did not pertain to the front of the business
  3. He was found to be operating a Lawn Mower Shop and not a junkyard

 

With this ruling, Laza proved he was justified in sticking to his guns and that by fighting the City he was protesting their tyranny, one man against City Hall.  By proving he was legally operating his business at 1101 W. Oak the Municipal Court Case solidified his “Vested” property rights.

 

Another time in 2009 the City of Palestine animal control officer began writing Laza tickets for keeping a horse inside the City limits.  While his property did not have an agricultural designation as a request for the Municipal Court Judge he applied and received the designation and was found to meet the City of Palestine’s Charter rules to keep and have goats and horses within the City limits.  One would think that meeting the City requirements would put an end to the issue.

 

 

 

Part 2

 

Surprisingly in 2016 the pattern began to be repeated again. The City seems to harass Laza on approximately a 10-year cycle.

 

Beginning in April of 2016 Laza received a 28 page “violations” of City Codes and Ordinances.  It was drafted in the form of a Court Document.  Each of the 10 properties listed in the complaint were accused of having the exact same violations.  While some of the properties were vacant lots.  The “complaint” filed by the Code Enforcement of the City of Palestine gave Laza 10 days to come within compliance.  It was all same violations from the 2006 and 2009 Municipal Court Cases, except for the additional properties. Puzzled Laza asked to have a meeting with the City Manager and Code Enforcement, like he had done in the past.  At this meeting City Manager Mike Alexander informed Laza that there would be no deals made, nothing could be worked out and that they would be taking the case to Civil Court.  Indeed, on June 9th 2016 Laza was served with a Lawsuit in the name of the City of Palestine.  Troubled Laza crafted a letter to the City Council and sent it by email on June 24, 2016 asking to be added to the City Council meeting on Monday June 27, 2016.

 

On Monday June 27, 2016 Laza went before the City Council and spoke on his own behalf asking them to work something out instead of both parties enduring court cost and lawyer fees.  He pleaded his case by adding that he was ready to do something different and retire in 2 years, 2018.  Later it would be learned that the emailed notice by Laza on June 24th would be the first time any Palestine City Councilman had heard about any lawsuit.  How could that be?  Who authorized the lawsuit?

 

During that Council Meeting the parties along with the City Attorney discussed the case in “Closed Session”.  And while it is unclear as to what was said or what if any decisions were made, one Councilman was noted to have said, to a concerned citizen while exiting the meeting, “we have him this time.”  What does that even mean?

 

When you are served with a Civil Lawsuit you have one of two choices; 1. You fold and the other side wins, or 2. You defend yourself.  Since all that Laza had worked for in the last 30 years was in questions his choice was limited and now that someone had actually filed legal actions he was cut off from any means of working anything out with the City of Palestine.  It was clear to see in the summer of 2016 this case was going to be fought out in Court and put a lot of money in the pockets of Attorneys.

 

The case stayed pretty dormant as long as Laza was in negotiations between his lawyer and the City Attorney to move and relocate his business.  When he finally made it clear that he would be unable to move, the City Attorney started proceeding and pushing to expedite the case.  Pretrial, motions, discovery and hearings lasted from November 2016 until September 2017.  One of the most notable discovery actions was when the Court allowed the City to enter Laza’s property to inspect for rats and mosquito larva and instead of searching for vermin the City had a field day taking pictures of Laza’s personal property and vehicle identification numbers.  Sound familiar?

 

In another pretrial motion Laza’s lawyer challenged the legality of the City of Palestine Attorney to file a lawsuit without the authorization of the City Council. While Ron Stutes, City Attorney, was unable to show that he had an ordinance or resolution approving the lawsuit by Palestine City Council, he argued that the “State of Texas” gave him the right.  He also presented an affidavit from City Manager Mike Alexander as authorization.  In the twist and turns Mike Alexander was able to get out of any responsibility he held in filing the lawsuit by negotiating a settlement with the City to leave on October 1st  2017 and act as a consultant for 1yr with a payment of $100,000.  Also, Alexander never finished his deposition for the case because under oath he suddenly got a case of “I don’t recall” going nowhere Laza’s Lawyer postponed to finish at a later date.  Once Alexander officially left town the Judge would not allow him be subpoenaed back to testify or complete the deposition.

 

The case ended in the Jury finding in favor of the City and fining Laza $163,155.00. Included in the in the amount awarded are fines for violations of ordinances where Laza has grandfathered rights.   The short version of how it got to that point is this.  The Judge issued the City of Palestine a “motion in limine”.  This motion kept the Jury from hearing any of Laza’s “vested property” rights and anything about the previous Municipal Court Case. The trial began on September 18, 2017.  After two days of testimony that appeared to be pretty damning for the City of Palestine the Judge postponed the trial and sent both parties to mediation.  I note here that the next witness to be called before the recessed trial was, yes, City Manager, Mike Alexander.  This was the second round of mediation at great expense and once again mediation failed basically because the City would not move or change unreasonable demands. The Jury trial resumed after an unheard of 29 day stall on October 16, 2017 and lasted for 5 days ending with the final Judgment being signed by the Judge Phifer on February 19, 2018.

 

Going back to September 18, 2017 the original start for the Jury trial Laza’s Lawyer filed a “Writ of Mandamus” in the Texas 12th Court of Appeals challenging the State District Courts ruling on the “Authority” to file suit.  On September 18th 2017, the 6th Court of Appeals issued a “Stay” pending a ruling.  I’m guessing at this point you would not be surprised if I told you the 349th State District Court Judge Phifer ignored the “Stay” and preceded with the trial.  January 3rd 2018 the ruling on the Mandamus came from the 12th Court of Appeals.  It read: “ …notice is hereby given that the petition, as indicated by the motion for stay, received in this proceeding does not show the jurisdiction of this Court, to-wit: the case has been removed to federal court and the federal court now has exclusive jurisdiction over the case.” 

 

Intriguing?  Yes, believe it or not the City of Palestine Attorney Ron Stutes filed and moved the entire case City of Palestine vs. Jerry Laza into the Federal Court in Tyler Texas.  That might lead you to wonder how they could keep prosecuting and spending public tax money on a case that no longer had jurisdiction in the 349th State District Court.  The Answer from the Texas 12th Court of Appeals further read: “…Once a notice of removal is filed, it “shall effect the removal and the State court shall proceed no further unless and until the case is remanded.”   Correct, the Case still sits in the Federal Court in Tyler and has never been remanded back to District Court.

 

So how is Laza now under charges of Contempt of Court and looking at serving jail time for a Case the 349th State District Court lost jurisdiction over before the Trial ever began September 18, 2017?  That is a good question.   One I am sure he would like to know himself.  On August 2, 2018 Laza was forced into personal bankruptcy.  Filing bankruptcy was the only alternative he had to stop the Contempt hearing and avoid jail for violation of the Judgment in 349th State District Court.

 

Laza filed his Appeal of the 349th State District Court Case on June 4th, 2018.  The Bankruptcy filing has “Stayed” all actions by all Courts including the Appeal’s Court.

 

Wondering if Texas Area Fund Foundation would pop-up again?  Wonder no more, it is alive and well building a $250,000 railroad memorial park two blocks from Laza’s 1101 W. Oak property.  Also, still active members are Jean Mollard (Mrs. Mollard), Steve Presley City Mayor and Allyson Mitchell Anderson County District Attorney to name a few.

The non-profit along with several sub funds under the same filing receive 100’s of thousands in grant money every year from the City of Palestine.

 

The case is pending, but you can read all the available info on the Facebook page “Support the Lawnmower Man, Palestine Texas.”

 

The Facebook page will be updated as additional info becomes available.

The Facebook moderators look forward to the engagement of the community on the page.

If you feel that this is a frivolous lawsuit.

If you believe the City should stand by its 2006 and 2009 agreement with a local landowner and business man.

If you want the City Council to focus on real issues and leave an independent business owner alone.

Then please call and email your city representative and tell them to force a vote to end the lawsuit.

 

Renee Willis