Condo czar seeks solutions

Article Courtesy of the Daytona Beach News-Journal

Posted September 29, 2005

When the homeowners association at Daytona Beach's Marina Point had minor problems with the annual election of the board of directors recently, guidance was available from Dr. Virgil Rizzo, Florida's first condominium ombudsman appointed a year ago by Governor Jeb Bush. When disagreement erupted among condominium owners at the Ocean Ritz homeowners association and some homeowners wanted a new board, Dr. Rizzo came to supervise and helped the residents clean house of any bad politics.

Rizzo has been carrying out a 2004 legislative mandate to provide education and assistance to condo owners around the state. He reports that more than 80 percent of complaints received have been resolved since the office opened last October.

"The people at our condo were unhappy," said Zelma Crenshaw, a member of the Ocean Ritz homeowners association. "The people on the board wanted to stay in power, but there were some irregularities."

She was told by the board that "this is the way they had always run the meetings and if I didn't like it, they would throw my ballot in the trash can."

Crenshaw made a formal complaint to Rizzo's office.

"He said he would be glad to have one of his people run the election," she said. "He sent me a petition, and we made copies and sent several to other homeowners. We needed 19 names to get the ombudsman to monitor the election, and we got many more than that."

"He (Rizzo) sent (a representative from the Ombudsman Office) down here to monitor the election. We have 121 units in this building. We had 100 people vote. Without him, we wouldn't have gotten a new board."

During the first quarter of 2005, the Ombudsman, an administrative assistant, and several volunteers staffed the Tallahassee office. Later the Legislature, effective July 1, authorized a budget of $440,000 (from the Division of Florida Land Sales, Condominiums and Mobile Homes Trust Fund) which Rizzo used to add to his staff. He operates with an attorney, two paralegals, an administrative assistant and a clerk typist. Gov. Bush also has authorized a satellite office to be opened in Broward County, Rizzo said.

Approximately 4,000 inquiries to Rizzo were made from April through June 2005. Most of the inquiries and requests were dealt with by telephone and e-mail replies. Many of the issues, disputes, complaints, and problems were resolved within a few days of their receipt, he said. Most complaints involved requests for information regarding statutory and administrative rule interpretation, and procedural operation and treatment of condominium corporate issues.

Rizzo said during the second quarter, the major problem continued to be the incapability and inability of board members to operate properly the associations.

"About 50 percent of inquiries were related to mismanagement of the association by the board of directors regarding finances, general operation, maintenance, and assessments. Twenty-five percent of the complaints were related to officer and director abuse by selective rule enforcement, lease-sale-transfer refusal, and general harassment at board meetings and about record requests," Rizzo said. "Ten percent were complaints regarding similar abuse by community association managers and condominium management companies. Fifteen percent of the complaints related to election and recall situations and issues."

Ivan Tessier, president of Marina Point homeowners' association, said his condominium also got help from Rizzo.

"We had minor problems, and the homeowners requested the state come and supervise the election," explained Tessier. He served on the homeowners' association board on and off for 18 years, but said this is his first time as president. "His (Rizzo's) assistance made it very clear how things were to be done. I was impressed. I think we learned enough that we don't need his assistance, but from time to time, we call with questions, and he is helpful and assists us with answers.

"(Rizzo's) help is really welcome," he added. "It was refreshing to have someone with the knowledge of what's going on."

According to Rizzo, the ombudsman's job is about fact-finding, recommending solutions and helping to find equitable settlements. An innovative staff, he said, has enhanced the success of his office.

"By working in conjunction with other agencies and resources, the office has been able to effectuate solutions regarding most all aspects of condominium living," he said in his recent report. He listed working with many agencies, including the Office of Human Relations, Fair Housting, the Florida Real Estate Commission and FEMA among others.

Rizzo, 68, a Pittsburgh, Pa., native, is an attorney, a retired medical doctor and a condo owner. He was a Fort Lauderdale resident when appointed to the job by Gov. Bush. He first taught science and math at Pittsburgh public schools after earning a bachelor's degree in 1959 from the University of Pittsburgh. During the mid-1960s he moved to Basel, Switzerland to study medicine. He studied dermatology and immunology and obtained a degree from the Swiss Institute of Tropical medicine.

In 1966, Rizzo moved to Lakeland to intern at Lakeland General and Polk County Hospitals and later opened a general practice in Broward County. Shortly after he began his practice, Rizzo was drafted and served two years in Vietnam. He returned to his medical practice until 1976. Then he attended Nova University School of Law (graduated 1982) and practiced general law and worked as a medical legal consultant to law firms throughout Florida.

His involvement in condominiums began in 1971 when he became involved in the association where he lived and helped others with condominium association problems.

To contact the ombudsman, e-mail: [email protected], phone (850) 922-7671, or fax (850) 921-5446.