By Jan Bergemann, Member of the HOA Task Force
The meeting in St. Augustine, Florida on Friday, January 9, 2004 finally revealed what consumer rights’ activists suspected from Day One: The HOA Task Force will be totally ineffective. Some of the recommendations the industry representatives of the Task Force plan on promoting as task force ideas will even create more problems for homeowners. “Created at the Governor’s request to harmonize and improve relations between homeowners, homeowners’ associations and other related entities,” this task force has in my opinion even created a deeper gap than we already had before. The discussions at the meetings have shown that the industry has no intentions of giving up the stranglehold on the homeowners’ wallets and on their constitutional rights.
But the actual fault lies in the hands of whoever created this task force and appointed the members. This panel consists of 15 members -- three homeowners’ representatives, two government employees and ten industry members. The outcome is very predictable, especially with the government employee voting in favor of the industry and forgets about consumer protection. One of the government employees is an attorney and six of the industry members are attorneys! Nothing against attorneys, homeowners have some good ones fighting on their side, but they are definitely not known to create harmony. If there were more harmony in our society, many attorneys would have to look for other jobs. Wouldn’t you agree?
And I absolutely understand that the industry partisans vote in favor of their own interests and bank accounts -- not wanting any kind of regulations, checks, balances and accountability. Yet I can’t understand government agency employees publicly voting against consumer protection. If our elected officials allow this to happen, it just shows what our current government is all about.
We recall that Attorney General Charlie Crist decided to intervene on behalf of Jupiter flag-flyer George Andres. Crist’s action prevented the foreclosure of Andres’ home for legal fees incurred during the lengthy court battle. However, Crist’s representative, Cheryl Kent, showed by her votes during the task force meetings that she is obviously not very much in favor of consumer protection. Considering that the Florida Attorney General ran and was elected on a platform of consumer protection, this is a BIG reason for concern for Florida voters.
And it was very interesting to listen to the ideas of the representative of the Florida Association of Realtors. Since three meetings we have been told that we will see the upcoming bill regarding disclosure the board of realtors is working on! Discussions were postponed in order to accommodate the realtors, but we never saw the bill. We sure already know one thing – there will be no real enforcement clause. Caveat Emptor will still be the “Buy Words” in Florida. When will professionals learn that they have to take responsibility for their actions?
The actual story of the meeting can be told in short words:
Alternate Dispute Resolution: A band-aid was created, which in my opinion can be more dangerous to homeowners than helpful. The discussion was definitely interesting, but without a government agency supervising the ongoing disputes, it will just be another field day and cash cow for attorneys. No wonder with seven attorneys being appointed to the Task Force.
Government Agency With Enforcement Power (See CCFJ, Inc. presentation): The proposal for creating a government agency to regulate and enforce the statutes of mandated properties was shot down after short discussion against the votes of the only three homeowners’ representatives on the panel. A regulating agency could endanger the income of many of the professionals. And protecting homeowners? Homeowners are just a necessary evil and have to stay a source of steady income, which could be seriously limited by government oversight!
Liens and Foreclosures (See CCFJ, Inc. presentation): OK, we throw homeowners a few crumbs by disallowing foreclosures for fines. Some associations already are working on changing their governing documents to create a wording that will turn “fines” into “dues” after four weeks of being unpaid. We know that the Supreme Courts of two states (Virginia and Rhode Island) already declared fines by associations unconstitutional, so the Florida industry is taking precautions.
But don’t dare to ask to take away the big hammer used by boards and their attorneys to subdue “disgruntled” homeowners: Foreclosures. The well-oiled foreclosure machines of some attorney firms have to continue running.
Inspection of Records: When it came to this agenda item, the majority of members had no quarrels to vote in favor of this motion, especially not after adding the provision that the association can charge up to 50 cents per page for a photocopy.
Fiscal Responsibility: Sure, but not with enforcement provisions. According to Joe Adams (CAI) just state that misappropriation of association funds by directors is a third-degree felony and every district attorney will be only too happy to prosecute. Does he know how hard it is to get them to investigate clear cases of embezzlement? Fraudulent land sales ( FS 498.022 ) -- as well considered a felony of the third degree -- are not prosecuted either. Given reason? Lack of funding!
Timely and Accurate Financial Information: Was approved, but only after changing the number of homeowners necessary to file the petition to 20%. Otherwise the danger of a few “disgruntled” homeowners getting the chance to file a petition is definitely too big!
Due to lack of necessary information, the discussion about the important issue of SLAPP suits against homeowners was postponed until the last meeting in Tallahassee on January 28.
But homeowners in associations can really breathe a sigh of relief. On Flag Day they can now fly six different service flags, but not from a flagpole. The industry members of the task force absolutely agreed with that provision. But flagpole, gee, that really could create a problem for the holy property values. Just think a homeowner would raise a nice 20-foot flagpole on the front lawn of his property. Imagine how quickly the neighbors’ property values would go down?
The meeting ended on a sour note: Six public speakers were not allowed to speak. Even if time ran out, not by the fault of the public, there should have been some short input. These people listened to nearly eight hours of meeting.
The note on the speaker’s request form: “PUBLIC INPUT WILL ONLY BE ALLOWED IF TIME PERMITS AFTER BUSINESS OF THE TASK FORCE IS CONCLUDED” already kept many interested citizens from showing up in the first place. But the few who came should have had the opportunity to speak. But, water under the bridge!
I just hope that there will be sufficient time given to speakers at the final meeting in Tallahassee on January 28. The task force members should minimum listen to the public when it comes to the final recommendations. In my opinion the task force serves to find consumer-friendly solutions for the many problems and to create harmony – according to the Governor. And I think we heard from many members of the public, who fulfilled their civic duty and spoke up, begging the Governor, DBPR and the task force members for help. These citizens and voters ended up being totally ignored by industry partisans and government employees serving on the task force.
This is not the end of it. But we definitely have to watch during the next session that no bills, filed under the pretense of being “Task Force Bills,” will be passing the legislature. Quite a few motions that passed with the majority of industry partisan members’ votes are absolutely damaging to homeowners’ interests, and definitely don’t help to create harmony, rather the opposite – filling attorneys’ wallets!
We will ask for the help of the honest
legislators to file the bills homeowners in Florida need to see enacted:
A government agency with enforcement powers; an end to abusive foreclosure
powers; and to restore our vested rights, given to us by contract when
we bought our property.
This is Stephen Comley's statement after being refused to speak:
I and other Florida Constituents planned on giving my public testimony but to my astonishment, disappointment and shock the Co-Chairs Julie Baker and Professor Sklar announced they had ran out of time and would not be able to allow the public to speak. There were only 6 people including my wife and I and some, who had come all the way from Broward County, who had filled out the reguired requests forms ahead of time only to be preventing from speaking . This decision was made even though we waited for over 7 and a half hours so we could present what we believed were important concerns for the Governor's Task Force to hear and to include in their recommendations for review by the Governor and other political leaders.
Difference of attitude? I testified 9/24/03 before The House Select Committee on Condominium Governance. Chairman Julio Robaina stated, when he saw so many attendees: "This Committee will stay until every constituent is heard!" The hearing lasted until after midnight.
I do not believe Governor Bush is pleased by their decision. I also believe that Thomas Jefferson would not have placed this HOA Task Force on his top ten list. I have reguested a public apology from the CO-Chairs and double time for their final meeting in Tallahassee on January 28, 2004. I contacted the Governor's office (1/12/04) and asked for a meeting with the Governor regarding this and other issues.
Stephen B. Comley -- [email protected]
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