Condo ombudsman is fired

With no explanation, Gov. Jeb Bush abruptly fired

Dr. Virgil Rizzo, the state's first condominium ombudsman.

Article Courtesy of the Miami Herald

Posted June 3, 2006

Using a terse three-sentence letter taped to the front door, Gov. Jeb Bush fired the man responsible for aiding condominium owners across the state.

Bush late Thursday ousted Dr. Virgil Rizzo, the state's first condo ombudsman, and replaced him with Danille Carroll, a Tallahassee attorney who has worked the past few years with the state Department of Health.

In the letter taped to the front door of Rizzo's Fort Lauderdale home, Bush was silent about the reasons for the firing, saying only that Rizzo's appointment was ''rescinded'' immediately and thanking him for his service to condo owners and the state of Florida.

But a spokeswoman for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulates condos in Florida, said Friday that Rizzo was fired for being unwilling to follow state laws and rules.

''Mr. Rizzo consistently demonstrated an unwillingness to be accountable to the taxpayers and the department,'' said Meg Shannon, who cited several examples of Rizzo not following state rules.

Rizzo, who is out of town on vacation, said he woke up Friday to find out he had been fired via a voice mail left on his cellphone from an aide in the governor's legal office.


''He just said that my appointment was terminated or rescinded -- some bureaucratic word,'' Rizzo said in a telephone interview. The aide gave no other explanation, said Rizzo, a retired attorney and medical doctor. He said he had ''no idea'' why he was terminated.

Rizzo's replacement, Carroll, has been an assistant general counsel for the Department of Health since January 2003, although at one time she worked as a consultant for Miami land-use planners The Curtis and Kimball Co. and as development community coordinator for a Miami architecture and engineering firm.

Community association activists, who had praised Rizzo for helping condo owners, were outraged Friday when they heard the news.

Jan Bergemann, president of the grass-roots association Cyber Citizens For Justice, blamed the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and ''influential'' condo association attorneys for getting Rizzo fired.

''With a small budget he showed a lot can be done,'' Bergemann said. ``Virgil made [the Department of Business and Professional Regulation] look bad; there's no doubt about that.''

The move also puzzled Rep. Julio Robaina, the Miami Republican who helped push for the creation of the ombudsman job in 2004.

The office has six employees and a budget of roughly $417,000.

''It's just a real shame,'' Robaina said. ``The office is going to continue, but the ombudsman was always the unwanted stepchild of [the department] and was the target of several law firms. I hope it doesn't become another government bureaucracy.''

While many condo owners praised Rizzo for helping them hold fair elections and prodding uncooperative boards, others had clashed with him.

Attorney Donna D. Berger, who is also the executive director of the Community Association Leadership Lobby (CALL) that represents Florida community associations, complained early on that Rizzo overstepped his authority. She said, for example, that Rizzo shouldn't be recommending term limits for condo board directors when it was hard to find people to serve.


Agency spokeswoman Shannon said Rizzo did not follow proper procedures for sending in time sheets and getting authorizations for travel. She said Rizzo pointedly told department Secretary Simone Marstiller to not ''interfere'' with his operation. She also said he refused to respond to a public records request from the Fort Lauderdale law firm Becker & Poliakoff, which led to a lawsuit against the state. Berger is an attorney with Becker & Poliakoff, which created CALL in 2003.

Shannon also said Rizzo maintained an ''unauthorized'' website that was set up by a private vendor and that he set up a private bank account to pay for condo board election monitors, contrary to administrative rules.