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Code enforcement officer goes the distance

Tom LaPenna, a Dunwoody code compliance officer, said he was just doing his job when he drove to Savannah, citation in hand, for an unresponsive homeowner whose property was deteriorating.
After moving to Dunwoody, LaPenna left his previous line of work in building inspection and applied on advice from an acquaintance for the new code enforcement officer position.

“I have been in code enforcement with Dunwoody since day one,” LaPenna said. “Enforcement usually pertains to quality of life issues, and we’re also called out if someone is doing unpermitted construction. I am the guy that gives everyone the bad news–I don’t get Christmas cards.”

It can be a thankless job, contacting people whose properties have fallen into disrepair. People avoid the letters, knocks at the door and certified mail LaPenna sends out. And, unless they confirm receipt of a citation, nothing can be done about the eyesore property.

“We are different than police officers,” LaPenna said. “We take the same oath, but we don’t arrest people. Georgia is a personal service state, so if I can’t get to the owner of that property, I can send by mail. But if they don’t show up, they have to get this woman to court somehow. What I have to do is find her.”

That’s exactly what LaPenna did on that balmy day in Savannah. A woman was listed as the point of contact for a house that seemed abandoned for some time. A tree had fallen on the roof. Water had stagnated in the pool. Grass grew feet high, and neighbors were complaining.

Dunwoody uses the International Property Maintenance Code, a permissive code that the Georgia state legislature allows communities to opt in or out of. The most recent version of the code states: “All vacant structures and premises thereof or vacant land shall be maintained in a clean, safe, secure and sanitary condition as provided herein so as not to cause a blighting problem or adversely affect the public health or safety.”

LaPenna was originally headed to Savannah for a Georgia Municipal Association conference the weekend of June 20-23. As the sergeant-at-arms for the Georgia Association of Code Enforcement, LaPenna tries to go to many conferences to learn and speak about code enforcement. While there, he had the idea to personally serve the citation to the homeowner.

“Here I am, I have to be back at the convention about 1:30, drove back and went back out [to her place of business], waiting,” LaPenna said. “I walked past and the lights are on, someone behind the door opened it. She was surprised to see me, but was very nice. I issued a brief citation two counts each.

‘This isn’t personal, I just have to do this for the city, it’s not fair to the residents in the cul-de-sac,’ I told her. ‘Here’s your court date and I’ll see you in court.’ And she said, ‘Well, thank you.’ I do try to use a velvet glove.”

LaPenna said he doesn’t usually travel more than 500 miles round-trip to serve citations. But, in this case, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

“What you have to do in the business of inspections or enforcement is to get people to understand it is your job to enforce the code,” he said. “It’s not personal. If I don’t do my job I’m not going to have a job. We try to do it as evenly as possible.”


This article originally appeared in The Champion Newspaper.



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