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The City of Minneapolis Goes after Uncle Bill’s Food Market
by William McGaughey
William Sanigular is an immigrant from Africa who came to the United States as a student in the 1960s. He worked at Cream-of-Wheat on Stinson Boulevard in Minneapolis for twenty years. Then in 1987, he obtained a license to operate a small grocery store on the corner of Sheridan and Plymouth avenues in north Minneapolis. The store is located at 2428 Plymouth Avenue. There are four residential units in the same building above the store whose address is 2426 Plymouth Avenue. Harvey Katzovitz owned the building; Sanigular rented the store space.
Vann White represented the 5th Ward on the Minneapolis City Council when Sanigular obtained his license. When Vann White died, Jackie Cherryhomes took over the Council seat, later becoming President of the City Council. Sanigular made the mistake of supporting Cherryhomes' opponent, Thomas Johnson, in the 1997 municipal election. He posted Johnson's campaign sign in his store window. Cherryhomes demanded that the building owner remove the sign. When Katzovitz asked Sanigular to comply with that request, the latter refused, saying that he, as tenant, had a right to support a candidate of his choosing. The campaign sign stayed.
Jackie Cherryhomes became a persistent opponent of Uncle Bill's Food Market. Sanigular wanted to add a deli to the store. For this, he needed to develop an architectural plan, hire an attorney, and make presentations to community groups seeking their approval. He spent roughly $10,000 on that process. Sanigular and attorney appeared three times before the Northside Residents Redevelopment Corporation (NRRC) to present the deli proposal. Cherryhomes was there each time to speak in opposition. The city license for a deli was never granted.
Cherryhomes claimed that Uncle Bill's Food Market was generating litter in the community and that the store owner ought to be responsible for picketing up litter from sidewalks, alleys, and streets over a four-block area that included Farwell Park. In 2001, while serving as City Council President, she circulated a petition in the neighborhood to the effect that the community did not want a grocery store at the location of Uncle Bill's Food Market. That effort went nowhere since neighborhood residents wanted the store. She also claimed that drugs were being sold at Uncle Bill's. Sanigular denied that charge.
When Harvey Katzovitz became ill in 1998 or 1999, he tried to sell the building. The asking price was around $80,000. He offered this building to Jackie Cherryhomes, but she was not interested in buying at that time. Sanigular purchased the property on May 5, 2000. It needed $60,000 worth of renovation and repairs. Sanigular operated the corner grocery store for another three years until he became crippled by diabetes. Confined to a wheel chair, he was unable to continue working behind the counter at the store. Sanigular sold the grocery store to Ali Hassan Meshjell after being denied a city license to operate a deli. He continued to manage the four rental units in his building.
Meshjell, a native of Iraq, bought the grocery-store business from Sanigular in December 2004 after he checked with the city's licensing department to see if there were any problems. He was told to go ahead with the acquisition. The store was closed for three months between January and March 2005 while Meshjell renovated the store. He made $140,000 worth of improvements including a refrigerated section for perishable food items. Shortly after opening the store in March 2005, Meshjell received a letter from an assistant city attorney to the effect that the city wanted to close the store. He had too much money invested in the store to comply with that request.
Not long after Ali Hassan Meshjell began operating the store, there were neighborhood complaints that the Uncle Bill's Food Market was the center of drug dealing. The city revoked his license. Meshjell hired an attorney, Leon Trawick, to fight the revocation. In an interview with WCCO-TV in 2006, Don Samuels claimed that the store was attracting 1,400 police calls a year. The RECAPS sheets show an average of five calls per month for 2006 and 2007, not out of line for a store near a bus stop in a poor neighborhood. A judge ruled that the city had failed to prove illegal activity in the store. Since the city could not prove any wrongdoing, it was unable to close the store down. Meshjell continued to run his business without a license.
Ali Hassan Meshjell received a letter from Ricardo Cervantes, director of regulatory services, dated December 14, 2006, which appeared to lay down conditions by which the city might allow the store to stay open. Meshjell was prohibited from selling such items as clay pipes, "blunts", and Chore Boy products, popular with drug users. Chore Boy scouring pads are sometimes used in small pieces along with marijuana to enhance the smoking experience. Pipes and blunts are containers for the hallucinatory substance. None of these items is unlawful to sell in the city of Minneapolis. Most stores of this type sell them. Meshjell, however, agreed to those terms. Additionally, the city cut back the store's operating hours. Previously it was open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Now the store had to close at 8 p.m. This meant a huge loss of revenue. When the revenue loss from operations was combined with the fees for attorneys who fought the city in court, it put Meshjell in a perilous financial situation. But still he persevered.
In 2006, the Minneapolis Fire Department did a complete inspection of Sanigular’s property. An inspector named Madeline led the effort. Sanigular hired Meyer Warren, a master carpenter whom he had known for many years, to do the work. He spent roughly $25,000 to complete the city-imposed work orders. This included $800 for a steel door. On July 30, 2006, Warren told Sanigular that the inspectors were satisfied with his work. However, there were rumors that top city officials believed that Madeline had been too lenient with William Sanigular. There were other rumors that someone downtown wanted to condemn his building.
In January 2007, Sanigular received a call from Minneapolis fire inspector whose name was James Dahl. Mr. Dahl said he wanted to check the upstairs apartments. Dahl arrived with three other inspectors who proceeded to check the entire building. When Sanigular protested that the city had signed off on his building the previous summer, Dahl threatened to fine Sanigular $1,000 and jail him for up to 90 days if he did not cooperate. The inspectors gave him a new set of work orders including many of the items that had previously been approved. It was alleged that the building had sagging floor joists and cracks in the structure.
At this point, Sanigular’s financial situation was becoming precarious. He fell behind on his mortgage payments. Bayview Mortgage Company, holder of the mortgage, sent letters to Sanigular on three separate occasions announcing its intention to foreclose on the mortgage and put the property up for sale at a Sheriff’s auction.
Three times Sanigular appeared at the downtown offices of the Hennepin County Sheriff but the auction never took place. Sanigular speculates that city officials were waiting until the building was condemned to put it into foreclosure. Otherwise, he would have had six months to redeem the property. Also, a condemnation by the city would depress the price which a buyer at the auction would have to pay.
Sanigular is now four months behind on the mortgage. A reason for this is that the two tenants in the upstairs apartments are not paying rent and the other two apartments are empty. One of the tenants is a young woman named Jennifer whom Sanigular is evicting for nonpayment. She is three months behind on her rent. She also has an unauthorized roommate, her boyfriend, who often leaves the door open. Jennifer has told Ali Hassan Meshjell that the city has promised her free housing. Sanigular believes the tacit understanding is that she be on the alert for code violations for the Minneapolis Fire Department to investigate. The other nonpaying tenant, since February, is a woman named Mary whose rent is subsidized by the Section 8 program. While Mary has paid her portion of the rent, Section 8 has not yet paid its share. It never will.
There is a dilapidated building at 2418 Plymouth Avenue, next door to Sanigular's property, which used to be owned by the One Spirit Church of God in Christ. It was sold to Asian Media Access Inc. in November 2004. The building, while still listed on city property records as belonging to that organization, is allegedly owned by Jackie Cherryhomes. There is speculation that Cherryhomes is acquiring property in the neighborhood in anticipation that property values will rise when the University of Minnesota builds its health-research facility near the corner of Plymouth and Penn Avenues. Her neighbor, George Roberts, who owns an art school on Plymouth Avenue at the other end of the block, was been one of the loudest complainers about Uncle Bill's.
In April 2007, Cherryhomes offered to buy Ali Hassan Meshjell’s ten-year lease to get him out of the building. Meshjell's attorney, Leon Trawick, calculated that a fair value would be $600,000. Meshjell told Trawick that he would be willing to accept $140,000, which was the amount of money he had put into the store. This was communicated to Cherryhomes. She told attorney Trawick that she needed three months to put her plan together. She did not then accept or reject the proposed terms of sale.
There was a shooting near the apartment building on the northwest corner of Upton and Plymouth Avenues on Monday, April 30th. Fortunately, no one was killed. The shooter, however, fled through neighboring yards. The police cordoned off the area for several blocks while seeking to apprehend the man. Since the neighborhood had previously been quiet, residents were disturbed by this incident. A meeting of the 1200 Upton Avenue Block Club was convened. Normally this group meets every two or three months. The meeting was set for Thursday, May 3, 2007, starting at 7 p.m.
The flyer announcing this block-club meeting said that its purpose was 'to share any concerns or neighborhood news, and follow up on our winter meeting, get NRRC Mini-grants (providing money for home-security devices) and sign a petition for alley speed bumps." But it was assumed that the neighborhood shooting would also be discussed. Block club leaders, Marge and Mary Higgins, would host the meeting at their home at 1216 Upton Street.
William Sanigular's wife, Jean, arrived at the block up meeting around 7:15 p.m. and was greeted by Marge Higgins and others. She was surprised to find Mayor R.T. Rybak, Council Member Don Samuels, Jackie Cherryhomes, and various other high-ranking city officials present at the meeting. Mayor Rybak was speaking when she entered the room. His topic was not the shooting or any of the agenda items but problems related to Uncle Bill's Food Market! A subsequent article in the Star Tribune quoted the mayor: “We will not be beaten by this place that is disturbing the neighborhood. Don’t thank me until that store is closed.” The mayor, said the article, "vowed to condemn the property 'sooner rather than later.'"
Don Samuels was next to speak. Echoing the mayor, he, too, wanted the store condemned, pointing out that the crime rate had improved in the vicinity of two other convenience stores closed down in north Minneapolis. The Star Tribune quoted him: "This is a classic case where you have a provider that h as given inferior service in inferior conditions. And if you can't produce good, quality service, then you have to go."
Though unquoted and unmentioned in the Star Tribune article, Jackie Cherryhomes was most vociferous, perhaps, in her denunciation of Uncle Bill's Food Market. Jean Sanigular recalls that she kept pushing for a condemnation decision. No eye contact was made. Cherryhomes' line of argument was "They're (the store and building owners) not doing anything to fix the problem. That place is just a whorehouse." Yes, she used the word "whorehouse" to describe Uncle Bill's grocery store - which is an ironic reference considering that Cherryhomes' husband, Clayton Tyler, is said to be half owner of Sinner's gentleman's club, next to Sex World, in the warehouse district of Minneapolis.
The purpose of the meeting was obviously to force immediate condemnation of Uncle Bill's. Top city officials were telling the fire inspectors, represented by Ron McConnell of the Problem Properties Unit, that they had to condemn soon. An inspector at the meeting, probably McConnell, promised city officials that inspectors would visit Sanigular's building next Monday and condemn it. Yes, he promised to condemn the building even before the fire inspectors had revisited it to determine whether condemnation was warranted..
After a decision regarding Uncle Bill's Food Market had been reached, the block club meeting turned to other subjects. A neighborhood resident named Joan Stauffer said of the recent shooting: "I feel fearful. My stomach is in knots, even being inside my own homes. We're being traumatized. And, as a result, I'm afraid we will become less better neighbors to each other." She was speaking of traumatization from when the gunman from the apartment building roamed the neighborhood. There was not a shred of evidence that this incident had anything to do with Uncle Bill's Food Market.
True to the city official's word, an inspector from the Minneapolis Fire Department arrived at the Plymouth Avenue grocery store at noon on Monday, May 8th, and did a hasty reinspection of Sanigular's property. He had less than 24 hours to complete the remaining work orders from January. Ali Hassan Meshjell, the store owner, offered to complete the work orders himself if Sanigular could not afford to hire someone. It was to no avail. A placard of condemnation was posted at two entrances to the building at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, May 9th, ordering the building to be vacated by May 31, 2007.
Citing the State Fire Code and Section 244.1450 of the Minneapolis Housing Maintenance Code, the placard said that the building was condemned "because of those deficiencies noted on inspection conducted on January 31, 2007." Section 244.1450 gives a blanket authorization to the city's commissioner of health, director of housing inspections, or chief of the fire-prevention bureau to condemn any dwelling which they think "constitutes a hazard to the health, safety or welfare of the occupants or to the public" for a variety of reasons.
Numerous observers, not including city officials or the Star Tribune reporter, have commented that the building next door at 2418 Plymouth Avenue appears to be in worse shape than Sanigular's condemned property. The cement platform in front of the main door is cracked. There is much broken glass and debris behind the building. This property lacks running water or electricity. It has been empty for some time. In other words, this is the type of building which the city of Minneapolis normally condemns. The disparity of treatment seems related to the identities of the respective owners.
Cherryhomes had a reputation for dubious property dealings while on the City Council. While no longer a city official, she is said to have mayoral ambitions. Don Samuels, who is on the Council, is politically close to Cherryhomes. With her help, he received the DFL endorsement for Fifth Ward in 2005. Thanks to Cherryhomes and state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, a redistricting plan put both Samuels and the 5th Ward incumbent Natalie Johnson Lee, who belongs to the Green Party, in the same ward. Samuels won the election. He currently chairs the Council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee.
Samuels’ specialty when it comes to crime policy is to close down neighborhood grocery stores and to hold public vigils after murders that have taken place in the city. Neither strategy seems to have reduced the murder rate. Other stores recently closed by Samuels include Big Stop on the corner of 26th and Knox Avenues North and Wafanas on 24th and Lyndale Avenues North. With a Madison Avenue flair, Samuels called them “inconvenience stores” in his letter to ward constituents. He has said that the store owners become “rich” by having drug dealers and thugs congregate near their property.
The Minneapolis Mayor, R.T. Rybak, is son of a drug-store owner in a crime-ridden neighborhood. His widowed mother took over management of this business located near Franklin and Chicago Avenues. His step-father, Chuck Mesken, was an inner-city landlord. When Rybak ran for office in 2001, he often remarked that he understood problems relating to housing and crime from conversations he had with his parents around the dinner table. Different lessons apply to a store like Uncle Bill's Food Market.
In this case, there is no evidence that Ali Hassan Meshjell’s store had anything to do with the shooting that took place in early May. But it’s a new crop of city officials, again focused on “problem properties” and excuse of its own inept handling of neighborhood crime. “Blame buildings” seems the main item in the politicians' bag of crime-fighting tricks.
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Part 2 - the Appeals Hearing
Larger rental properties in Minneapolis are inspected by the Fire Department. The Fire Department did a complete inspection of Sanigular’s building in the summer of 2006. Repairs requested by the city cost him over $25,000. This caused Sanigular to fall behind on his mortgage payments. At the end of July, the fire inspectors said they were satisfied with the work.
But then, in January, 2007, a different set of Fire Department inspectors came by to do a new inspection. It was now alleged that the building had sagging floor joists and cracks in the structure. Sanigular worked on the project as best he could until the fateful block club meeting and the condemnation several days later. He appealed the condemnation to the Minneapolis Fire Code Appeals Board. The appeal was heard in the Fire Department offices in City Hall on Tuesday, July 24.
Bill Sanigular tipped off a reporter for the Watchdog newspaper (me) that this meeting would be held. I opened the door to the conference room and sat down in an empty chair near the door. The presiding official, assistant chief Dave DeWall, asked me what I was doing. I said I was with the Watchdog newspaper and would observe the meeting. DeWall then said it was a private meeting. I had to leave. I said that if I did leave, I would march straight to Mayor Rybak’s office and get a clarification of the city’s open-meeting policy.
This seemed to throw a wrinkle into the situation. Calling a recess of the meeting, DeWall rose from his chair. Ten minutes later, he returned. I could remain at the meeting, he said, but not participate. I said I had no intention of participating. There were no further problems involving me.
Bill Sanigular and his wife, Jean, were sitting at one end of the table across from Deputy Chief DeWall and several other Fire Department officials. Sanigular was trying to argue that his building was stable. He had spent $650 to fix the garage, $285 for a new steel door, $889 on the front and back doors, etc. He said he didn’t think there were any structural problems. A structural engineer had said there was nothing wrong with the building. It was not going to fall down in the near future.
Sanigular then raised several points that seemed to be a rather delusional appeal for sympathy. Some inspectors had said they would kick in his doors. I’m “a foreigner” (from Africa), Sanigular said, but “we’re all human beings.” There was “no trouble on my record”. He was “never on welfare”. If the city was giving the owner of the adjacent building (which was in much worse shape)a chance to make repairs, why couldn’t he have the same opportunity? “If I fix one thing”, Sanigular observed, “the inspectors come back and then ask me to fix several other things.”
A city inspector in 2006 had said the building was OK. Now the city was saying he “had to fix such and such”. He had spent $25,000 on city-ordered repairs. Where could he find an affordable lawyer?, Sanigular asked.
Inspector Jim Dahl said that the latest orders had been given in February. There were “twenty points of contact” between the city and Sanigular, yet no action was taken to engage the services of a structural engineer until a few days before the two parties went to court. No structural report had yet been issued.
Chief De Wall said he was not disputing the fact that Sanigular had spent some money in complying with city work orders. His main concern was from a structural standpoint. The city needed a report from a certified structural engineer who would say that the building was structurally sound.
He also commented that inspectors had noticed that some work had been done in several places but no permits had been pulled. It was necessary to pull permits and have an inspector examine the work to see that it was done properly. The work had to be up to city code.
Inspector Dahl referred to Sanigular’s comment that the building was structurally sound. It would not fall down in the next fifty years. Yes, he said, but what would happen during a fire? They had to be sure that structural weaknesses in the building would not endanger fire fighters’ lives.
The issue, said De Wall, was the lack of a report from a certified structural engineer. He did not see a reason why, even though the building was condemned, Sanigular could not engage the services of a structural engineer who could look at the building and see whether Sanigular was able to address the city’s concerns. You can’t “occupy a condemned building,”he said, “but we’re still allowing you to fix the problems.”
Sanigular noted that he had already paid money to a structural engineer. Yes, there was an engineer at the meeting before their appointment in court; but he said he had not yet issued a report. It might take three weeks or so to do it. And that was several months ago.
Not just any structural engineer’s report would do. The city needed an engineer and perhaps a certified architect, as well, to look at the particular issues that inspectors had raised and attest to the fact that those concerns were adequately addressed. Moreover, the work had to be done by a city-licensed contractor. Permits had to be pulled.
Once this was done and Sanigular gave the Fire Department the structural engineer’s report certifying that the building met all the required conditions, then Fire Department officials would turn the matter over to the Building Inspections department - to a Pat Higgins - who would review the entire package and decide whether the condemnation might be lifted. There were no guarantees that he would decide to do that, however.
The conclusion reached at this meeting was that, unless or until Bill Sanigular produced the structural engineer’s report, the Minneapolis Fire Code Appeals Board would be compelled to deny his appeal of the building condemnation. Sanigular received a letter to that effect dated July 26, 2007. The letter noted that the Appeals Board had heard his appeal even though it was received two months after the fifteen day appeal deadline.
Bottom line was this: “The board denied your appeal and requires that the requested report be submitted to this department before the orders can be abated. It was suggested that you contact Dan Niziolek in the Problem Properties Unit - otherwise known as the “Political Games Department” - of the Minneapolis Department of Regulatory Services to determine any other requirements that may be needed to be addressed prior to reoccupying the building.”
I left the July 26th meeting as Bill Sanigular, looking rather dejected, was slumped over in his wheel chair. Here was a man who had come to the United States as a student in the 1960s and had worked for Cream-of-Wheat for twenty years before deciding to pursue the “American dream” and become an independent business owner.
He had operated a neighborhood grocery store between 1987 and 2004 in a comparatively rough part of town while unsuccessfully trying to upgrade the operation to a deli. (“Neighbors”, led by City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes, wouldn’t let him.) Nicknamed “Bill the Snitch” by some of his high-spirited young clients, some other “neighbors” were now blaming him for “tolerating” crime.
The Fire Department hearing had a surrealistic air. One would think that the structure of the building was actually the issue. Nowhere else was it mentioned. A letter to the editor of City Pages, responding to a previous story about Uncle Bill’s, framed the question in these terms:
“ For a good part of those 37 years (since the writer has lived in that neighborhood), the store and the building have been a blight on our community. Previous owners have exploited poor and low-income residents by charging exorbitant prices for milk and bread, short-changing children buying penny candy, selling cigarettes and blunts to underage youth, tolerating gang behavior, renting apartments to questionable tenants, turning a blind eye to prostitution and drug activities on the corner, and in general displaying a supreme disregard for nearby residents.”
Short-changing children who buy penny candy? Who could respect someone like that? I don’t. But the fact is that none of this, if it were true, has anything to do with the allegedly sagging floor joists and cracks in the structure which were never spotted before. In their nicely pressed uniforms, the Fire Department brass were demanding certified structural engineer’s reports of this diabetic man sitting in a wheel chair, scratching his head, who obviously could not afford to do much of anything more.
Sanigular had spent $25,000 in the previous summer humoring Fire Department inspectors. Then a half year later, in January, they returned for a second dip. And now, on speculation that another city department might lift the condemnation, the higher echelon of the Minneapolis Fire Department was requiring structural engineers’ and architects’ reports of this elderly, impoverished man and humanely giving him more time to comply.
And behind the Fire Department humanitarians stood the “saintly” - if you believe the churches and foundations - City Council Member Don Samuels, chair of the Public Safety and Regulatory Services committee, who has worked so hard to bring “peace” to North Minneapolis in the form of closed neighborhood grocery stores.
I talked with a structural engineer who had prepared a building report for the store manager, Ali Hassan Meshjell, but it was not the report that Bill Sanigular needed to obtain a favorable verdict for his appeal of the Fire Department’s condemnation. That other report, or reports, he informed me could be quite “spendy”.
And so, money seems always to be the bottom line in our system of justice, regulatory or otherwise. The righteous have money. Small business owners in Minneapolis have none.