TAMPA MEETING DECEMBER 8, 2003
More An Opinion Than The Actual Minutes
Published 12 - 14 - 2003
By Jan Bergemann, Member of the HOA Task Force

Again, this report reflects my personal opinion and is more a comment about the meeting than an official report. The meetings are receiving more and more publicity, as reflected by the public speakers who are eager to tell their side of the story to the task force members.

But on the other hand, the meetings reflect more and more the daily problems of life in a Florida homeowners' association. Intimidation and bully-tactics seem to find their way into these meetings, disturbing the findings of a task force, which was created by the Governor with the intent "to harmonize and improve relations between homeowners, homeowners’ associations and other related entities."

 
Sitting in the front row was Attorney Steven Mezer, whose presence definitely didn't help the homeowners from Nature Watch HOA. When they brought their case before the HOA Task Force, they had hoped for public recognition and the help they deserve from government agencies. Steven Mezer had been the attorney for the Nature Watch HOA
 
Steven Mezer (front row middle) is waiting for the testimony of the homeowners of Nature Watch (Pinellas County, Florida). On his left attorney Eric N. Appleton, a newer associate of the law firm of Bush, Ross, Gardner, Warren & Rudy P.A.
 
until removed by the homeowners. Now he is the attorney for the court-appointed receiver, Bolnick. Mezer is the attorney filing the foreclosure papers against his former clients. He is the same attorney who was prominently featured in the foreclosure story on CBS "Inside Edition" in the Lake St. George HOA in Tampa. 

Mezer’s presence (he had already left when this statement was made) was cause for Co-chair Bill Sklar to make the following statement (quote): "I want to make a disclosure to the task force. I’ve directed staff council to make inquiry of those here from Natures Watch become made aware of allegations, purported allegations, that anyone speaks before this task force would be, has been threatened with law suits from among other things supposed libel or slander, allegedly made by members of the Florida bar who are officers of the court and I as a officer of the court member of the Florida bar have directed staff council to make inquiry of those and that have spoken from Nature Watch and to consult with co chair of as a follow up as to a possible referral to the Florida bar counsel. If, in fact, those types of threats have been made. I just wanted disclosure but I do not want to put anyone, who has spoken here today, any member of the public at risk mentioning any specific names as so that is the reason why staff council may be speaking to those of you who have, at my direction, speaking here today.” 

But since rumor was already going around in Nature Watch that Steven Mezer would attend the task force meeting, quite a few owners had already decided not to testify, afraid of being slapped with a lawsuit.  I guess some people don't like to hear the sad tale in public? 

The few owners who finally dared to speak up told a gruesome tale of a homeowners' association gone bad. Obvious construction defects have caused a judge to decide that ALL homeowners are responsible for the repair of the damaged homes.  Then the court-appointed receiver made it his task to have ALL homes checked for defects, causing the bills to go up and up.  We heard stories about huge “exploratory” holes being cut in walls and just closed with patchwork. Among the owners who found the courage to tell his story to the task force members was Jim Nelson. In his presentation he expressed his frustration about most likely losing his home and his life-savings, because the investment in his dream home turned into a nightmare.  Nelson is especially disappointed, because all government agencies that were notified about this horror turned a deaf ear on these retired citizens – many of whom exist on fixed incomes. 

Nobody to turn to and nobody to help -- the fate of homeowners in Florida. 

Just recently 39 more Nature Watch homeowners were served with foreclosure papers.  Another 100 owners are already threatened with the same fate.  So far the estimated cost is about $95,000 FOR EACH OWNER.  This is more than these people have to spare.  Life-savings, the kids’ college funds – all money has been used to avoid the threat of losing the home.  But it's still not enough!  (Please realize that we are talking here about villas with walls jointly owned by individuals  --  not common-property condo association walls.)  Nobody will ever be able to reimburse these abused people for the nightmares they are suffering, even if the court of appeals eventually finds in favor of the owners.  What horrible mistake did they make?  They bought a home in the wrong homeowners' association.  Is that what “consumer protection” in Florida is all about? 

If this ruling of Judge Bryson is allowed to stand, it will be of huge significance for all Florida homeowners.  If this disaster becomes public, I doubt that there will be any more potential buyers with common sense willing to invest their life-savings in any property located in homeowners' associations in Florida. 

When will our elected government officials wake up and give these people the necessary help?   Desperately needed for Florida's economy, retirees are easy to lure to this sunny state.  (See the Report of the Destination Florida Commission).But it's even more important that our government protects these citizens and taxpayers, whose money purchases Florida’s real estate, goods and services. 

How does that go along with the protection of the Florida Homestead Exemption? Shouldn't foreclosure be caused ONLY by nonpayment of association dues?  Florida's Attorney General Charlie Crist already is fighting this issue in the Jupiter flag case of George Andres.  Hopefully, we will finally get a decision that will protect innocent citizens from losing their homes for frivolous reasons. 

My motion was accepted to add "Foreclosures" as agenda item for the next meeting of the HOA Task Force in St. Augustine.  A lot has to be said about the issue of “foreclosures.”
Where did the constitutional Homestead Exemption protection disappear?

We heard from many other public speakers.  A total of 28 persons had filed a speaker's request form. 

We heard from Gary Kauffman, who talked about purchaser protection and alternative dispute resolution. 

Anna Spinella, a well-respected Nursing Home Reform activist, spoke on behalf of consumer protection from her point of view, after talking to many elderly citizens. She often hears complaints from owners, claiming abusive behavior of board members, managers and attorneys. Since Florida is a state with many retirees, consumer protection should be No.1 on the list of important issues. In her opinion, consumer protection is not possible without a government agency with enforcement power!

We heard from Barbara Gugliotti, who gave us the short version of her presentation, (read long version here) talking about harassment, bullying, intimidation, and threats to homeowners by the association and suggestions how to fix the problems.

Dwight McDonald, a Florida Real Estate Broker and Property Manager, presented us with his insight, using his professional and private experience to point out the existing problems. He strongly favors Alternative Dispute Resolution to avoid the high cost of litigation, where only the attorneys are the winners!

Gene Lauro, a homeowner in Christina HOA, told us about the fight of homeowners in an association, where a group of neighbors tries to force the other neighbors to join a voluntary association that wrongly calls itself a “mandatory” association.  Even though the owners under siege won the first battle , the others are not giving up and force their neighbors to spend more money to defend their freedom from power-hungry neighbors.

Marc Benson, speaking for FCAMA, spoke in favor of consumer protection, licensing of the profession of community managers and the necessity for the professionals to accept responsibility. He had outlined his major concerns in earlier presentations to the members of the Task Force.

Since time was running short, Gary Hinkle chose to just distribute his written presentation to the members of the Task Force in order to introduce it into public record.
His presentation outlined the necessity of removing FS 720.302(2).  Also, Hinkle advocated the creation of a government agency with enforcement powers to avoid the problem of costly litigation, where there is only one winner:  The attorney! 

All in all, we heard from many public speakers, but none of them was happy with the existing system.   Is it time that certain people take off the blinders, admit that lots of mistakes have been made and start correcting them? 

After lunch-break we heard the presentation of Russell Grooms, incoming president of Florida Realtor Association (Watson Realty, Jacksonville, FL). 

 
I have to admit that I was a little surprised about the contents of his presentation. He spoke about a new disclosure bill, that needs to be changed. It took me a while to realize that he was speaking about the amended version of FS 689.26. He definitely is not in favor of making realtors responsible for supplying the necessary documents. Grooms said: "In my 31 years in the real estate business, I have never heard of buyers being provided a copy of the deed restrictions at closing." 
 

His response was evasive to my question of holding violators of the disclosure law responsible by issuing fines. 

Especially disturbing for potential buyers was his statement (quote): "The purchaser to receive the homeowners governing documents we oppose. I, we, feel these covenants and restrictions are on public record in every county in the State of Florida and are available to anyone any day they want them. Mandatory deliverance of covenants and restrictions should not be anybody’s burden because they are on public record. The public needs to rely on the public documents which will never change.” 

If potential buyers can't get the necessary information and legal documentation from the realtors, who should supply these vital documents?  Does that mean the incoming president of the Florida Realtor Association promotes continuation of "Caveat Emptor" for Florida homebuyers?  Be aware and BEWARE, when you consider the purchase of real estate in Florida!

With little time left, the Task Force finally started to discuss the agenda items.

Purchaser Protections:

After a short discussion, it was obvious that purchaser protection was on everybody's mind. Developers need to follow the rules and can't get away with misleading information or false advertising. I distributed the official CCFJ, Inc. position paper and made sure that everybody understands that consumers need protection against the deep-pocket industry. "Protection meaning government enforcement!"

Joe Adams, CAI, even went a step further and proposed to the members that the Task Force should recommend proposals for purchaser protection against construction defects. Because of time constraints, this was referred to the next meeting in St. Augustine.

As it was in two prior meetings, a hotly debated issue was funding mechanisms for the delivery of services to non-mandatory HOAs, such as Municipal Service Benefit Unit (MSBU). SB 1632 -- Relating to County Governments -- – had already been vetoed by Governor Bush after passing both houses.  It seems that this was a bill that would have slipped through the cracks of the legislature, but  Governor Bush’s veto prevented bigger damage. 


After listening to all the testimony -- and Co-chair Bill Sklar even tried to build bridges by asking targeted questions -- it was obvious that the many public speakers had only one thing in mind -- to create funds to sue the neighbors. Just one public speaker, Grace McMillan, stated in her presentation that with no common areas to maintain and no mandatory association in place, homeowners should not be forced to pay into kitties being used to sue themselves. 

My only explanation for this bill passing both Houses with unanimous votes of approval is that legislators were given wrong explanations for the actual purpose and the intended use of the funds created by this bill. I honestly

 
 
Attorney Nina Vaznelis, member of the HOA Task Force and proponent of enlarging FL Statutes Chapter 125 to create funds for litigation.
can't imagine a legislator voting in favor of a bill that creates funds to sue the neighbor? That is exactly what it boiled down to after listening to the testimony of the proponents.

Hopefully, that will now finally end the discussion and the legislature will not revisit this issue in the next session. Minimum we all know now the intended purpose of these funds -- Asking the neighbor: "Please pay into the pot so we have ample funds to sue you!"

But we all witnessed as well a very serious incident during this testimony. Task Force member Nina Vaznelis, an attorney and one of the strongest supporters of this in my opinion ill-advised bill, abused her position to ask questions in a manner that brought tears in the eyes of a public speaker, an opponent of the proposal. After delivering a polite and factual speech (copy see below!) , the speaker was grilled by Vaznelis.  In my opinion, Task Force members should encourage the public to speak up in order to collect opinions.  Yet in this case the scenario is even worse.  Currently the speaker is in litigation with the association in question and Attorney Nina Vaznelis represents the association.  Asking questions regarding the current lawsuit was definitely inappropriate. The people in charge should definitely investigate this unethical conduct. 

The actual discussion about Alternative Dispute Resolution had to be postponed again. The CCFJ, Inc. position paper was distributed in order to let the other members know how we feel about this issue. ADR can only be helpful for homeowners if it is conducted by a government agency with enforcement powers, in order to avoid creating huge legal fees. 

We heard previews of the presentations from Robert Jones, Florida Conflict Resolution Consortium, and Karl Scheuerman, DBPR. A nice presentation was handed out in order to make the Task Force members familiar with the upcoming proposals and following discussion.

It was definitely a very educational meeting. It was a shame that some people carry the problems we are supposedly trying to avoid into these meetings. Everybody dealing with the issue of mandated properties knows that bully-tactics and intimidation are common in many associations. But this kind of behavior definitely doesn't fit for a Task Force created to discuss solutions for this growing problem.

IMPORTANT PREVIEW:
The next meeting of the Task Force will take place on Friday, January 9, 2004 in St. Augustine in the St. Johns County Administration Center, starting at 9 AM. The Agenda will contain very important issues, very important for the success of this attempt to protect consumers in homeowners' associations: 
Creation of Government Agency with enforcement powers;
Foreclosures; Florida Homestead Exemption

We will as well hear the discussion about pros and cons of Alternative Dispute Resolution and further discussion about purchaser protection against construction defects.

The official agenda isn't published yet, but it will be filled with hot issues only! Make a note on your calendar and make sure you have your presentation ready. Your opinion is valued -- next time hopefully without interference from certain parties!



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