When Condo Boards Act Like the Gestapo

An Opinion By Roger Buchanan

Flagler Beach, FL

Published January 18, 2010


We considered selling. A real estate broker sat in our living room asking discrete questions about the restrictions and enforcement practices of our condo Board of Directors. Purpose? The sales agent needed to know in this competitive buyer’s market if she would be trying to sell membership in a condominium with a reputation for turning dreams into nightmares. When she got down to the heart of the matter she wanted to know if we have one of those Gestapo boards.
We lied. Or, better put “let the buyer beware.” Why prejudice the sell? A new buyer will learn as we did. After all, truth in lending laws apply to such things as the condition of the dishwasher, but not to those hidden maintenance items that have been willfully neglected by a Board of Directors or for acts of meanness reserved for uninitiated snowbirds who naively think Floridians welcome Northerners with a sense of civic responsibility.
I will tell you a story that you will not believe. That is, if you come from a municipality where the local newspaper keeps an eye on elected officials, this story could not happen.
But condominiums are a form of government with no news coverage and no external oversight. The condominium ruling elite has little interest in the rules of accountability, transparency or even decency. In practice a condo boards can become a weapon of mass destruction used by a revengeful establishment holding on to power aided by the shadows of secrecy.
My story involves Harry, (not his real name). Harry had a measure of ambition. He purchased a small business from his former boss and secures a contract with Happy Days Condominium, (not their real name). He tried to please, but maybe he didn’t try hard enough. It is hard to please when every condo owner you meet assumes that they are your boss. Harry’s performance was not up to par. Under the circumstance the normal practice would be to withhold payment until Harry completed the terms of his contract. But not at Happy Days. An officer of the Board who also has a condo management contract with the Board decided, for reasons never disclosed, to issue a check to Harry for his services and then run to the bank and stop payment on the check. Meanwhile, Harry, delighted with his business success, eagerly deposits his check and quickly pays off a handful of creditors. Then, of course, the bank slaps Harry with fees for writing checks with insufficient funds. Harry’s creditors are now totally disgusted with young Harry’s reliability. Disgraced and discouraged, this youthful dishwasher-turned-contractor disappears.
End of story? No. Harry had some well-wishers who spoke at the next meeting of the Board of Directors. However the Board officer/condo manager who put a stop order on Harry’s check is not maligned for an act of cruelty but is quickly praised for decisive action.  The Board, totally in the dark up until this moment, now decides to be generous –with one of their own. The Board moves to pay Harry’s bank fees. The Board officer guilty of a senseless act of meanness breathes a sigh of relief. Her act of putting a knife in the back of a contractor went unpunished. She paid no fees. The Board paid off the victim at no expense to her. Simple Harry, who mysteriously disappeared, will not be bringing legal action against her for a breach of contract that ruined his business. And, no reporter was there to tell the story.
End of story? No. A Unit Owner was outraged and using emails called for the Board officer/condo manager to resign. Why? Because she violated the rules of ethics of an organization where she is President. The Unit Owner also threatened to release the story to the local business community if she did not step aside. The next contractor who wishes to do business with Happy Times Condo deserved to be warned – the check you are paid for services might not be issued in good faith.
End of story? No. Condo Boards have a secret weapon for dealing with snowbirds – summer. When the offending Unit Owner was far up North, the Board officer/condo manager decides, with the collaboration of the Board’s majority, that “this sort of thing” must be stopped. They hire an attorney to review all the Unit Owner’s emails with the word on the street being that the Unit Owner is to be sued. A thousand dollar witch-hunt ensued, the hired-gun lawyer wrote a certified letter cleverly advising the Unit Owner on ways to avoid being sued. The threatened litigation never materialized. Now who paid for this costly act of information and intimidation? The condominium of course – the willing financier of the establishment. Obviously the condominium unit owners were not informed of the legal nonsense they had purchased.
End of story? Yes. It is Florida where condos can be fleeced to pay for intentional acts of meanness, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is not in the curriculum, and where outsiders can go back North at their earliest convenience.
The exodus is now in progress. For the first time in history Florida ’s out migration exceeds the inflow of new uninformed and innocent retirees.