Norristown's bureaucracy was so broken when a now-condemned condo passed inspection three years ago that staff secretaries were routinely signing inspectors' names to the occupancy permits, an audit has found.
The "misguided effort to appear customer-friendly" was only one of a series of failings that allowed the Rittenhouse Club condo building at 770 Sandy St. to slip through the inspection system, outside auditor Richard T. O'Brien said Tuesday night in a meeting.
Other problems included inadequate inspector training, failures to check out the project's special requirements, and apparently several inspections that were never logged into official records.
And these are just the preliminary findings by the company hired to figure out why the troubled building - whose hollow walls and fire-safety deficiencies have now been deemed unsafe - was allowed to open.
"It is abundantly clear," said O'Brien, president of Keystone Municipal Services, "that no borough department employee or consultant took ownership of the project. At the time the structure was under construction, there was no principal inspector who was responsible for overseeing the project and making sure all items were completed."
The result has been an unending series of problems for the condominium building's residents, who were ordered to leave Friday after Montgomery County Court Judge William T. Nicholas allowed Norristown to go ahead with a condemnation order originally issued May 5.
"I don't see how a $6 million building falls through the cracks," said Ryan Schofield, one of eight condo owners, along with a number of renters, ordered out of the five-story building. "But it seems like they're telling me that's what happened."
He and the other residents are waiting for the results of Nicholas' order that the structural issues of the Rittenhouse Club building get a full diagnosis and a repair plan within 30 days.
Developer R. Bruce Fazio said Thursday that he was surprised when three of the four concrete walls tested for solidness were found to be hollow. Engineer Edward Koehler said he would have to consult construction companies and others, including the inspectors of the building's wiring and fire-safety systems, to come up with a cost estimate for the repairs.
That the building was ever constructed with such issues was the result of slipshod municipal oversight, O'Brien said. He read from a lengthy preliminary report, but he declined to provide copies of it to Schofield and other residents at the meeting.
O'Brien listed numerous problems within the municipality's structure - including the state and federally ordered removal of its mayor and manager in 2004 - as factors in the failed inspection process.
After residents began moving into the building in 2007, the township hired an outside agency to handle its inspections.
O'Brien also said that the desire to attract desirable new residents to the worn industrial municipality, such as the buyers of the $200,000-plus condominiums, contributed to the apparent overlooking of the building's problems.
"There was a department head in place with little to no understanding of the building code and the other requirements of the uniform construction code," O'Brien said, "and, ultimately, leverage was lost with the applicant when the use and occupancy certificates were issued without identifying conditions or time frames for finishing the structure in its entirety."
The final report is to be submitted by the end of the month, O'Brien said.