Countryway residents stage a coup after brouhaha over money, management

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Tia Mitchell

Published March 20, 2011

COUNTRYWAY — A monthslong battle over control of one of north Hillsborough's bedroom communities ended this week with a coup.

Old leaders of the master home­owners association in Countryway are out, and new ones — handpicked by the opposition — are in.

What started out as one home­owner's concern over spending and a 51 percent dues increase led to accusations of mismanagement, an appeal to the state, legal fees and the exit of four members on Countryway's master board.

During a meeting Monday, more than 100 neighbors crammed into a small conference room, some shouting that their rights had been violated, others calling for the election of a new board to commence.

Outgoing board president JoAnn Doherty was the object of their wrath. She sat quietly, refusing to tell them the balance of the reserve account or to share minutes from previous meetings. They would have to submit formal information requests, she said.

At one point, a frustrated Bruce Bertan, appointed spokesman of the opposition group, addressed the crowd. "We have no control over this," he said. "When she is gone things will be better."

Some have hinted of requesting an audit and pursuing other legal action.

Even in the world of suburban neighborhood governance — where homeowners association meetings can quickly go from mundane to antagonistic — the Countryway saga may be epic.

By all accounts, the turmoil started with Andre Bagnasco, who grew curious last year after the board fired the community's property manager. In September, he asked to review meeting minutes and financial statements.

He learned that 2010 spending had outpaced income. The reserves account, which ideally would have a balance of about $150,000, was nearly depleted. And $90,000 the community received from a cell phone tower company that leases space there had all been spent.

Bagnasco began writing multipage articles in a community newsletter railing against board members, especially Doherty, and their decisionmaking.

Things came to a head in November when the board boosted annual dues for Countryway's 1,553 homeowners by 51 percent to $374. The money pays for a property manager and for maintenance of a recreation area, retention ponds and landscaping.

Soon, leaders in 14 of Countryway's 20 subdivisions joined Bagnasco, orchestrating an effort to recall the entire board.

One problem: According to bylaws, the old board would have to certify the ballots to recall themselves. They threw out more than a third of the votes for various reasons, causing the recall to fail.

The opposition obtained a lawyer and appealed to the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which oversees such disputes. They were still waiting on a decision when the group came up with a quicker means to an end. They knocked on doors to generate interest and collect enough votes to hold Countryway's first election in more than a decade. In years past, elections have been rare, with volunteer board members often leaving before their terms end and soliciting neighbors to fill empty positions.

Shortly after a contentious meeting in February where neighbors questioned spending, board members Adam Trainor and Michelle Boylan announced they'd had enough. They e-mailed resignation letters to remaining board members.

But Doherty and board treasurer Tony Pimenta refused to step down. That would be like admitting they had done something wrong, they argued. (A fifth board seat was vacant.)

They stood behind the decision to spend the reserves and raise dues.

The common areas needed major repairs and couldn't be allowed to decay further, Doherty told North of Tampa. Meanwhile, the rising number of homeowners who defaulted on paying their annual dues — about 100 each year — were costing neighbors more money.

"Unfortunately it amounts to somebody else has to pay on their behalf," she said.

Pimenta said he accepts that some people disagreed with the board's decisions, but he faults Bagnasco for misleading people through those lengthy newsletter articles.

"This is how he riles up his cult of followers," Pimenta said.

Three seats were up for election at Monday's meeting, and homeowners elected the three candidates Bagnasco backed by an overwhelming margin: lawyers Charmaine Reed and Jeffrey Shelquist and environmental planner Ivana Blankenship.

Pimenta said he was away on business and could not attend the meeting. After the vote, Doherty stood at the back of the room while the new board members discussed how to move forward.

"You should be ashamed, JoAnn," one woman hissed as she passed by.

Doherty didn't respond to insults and eventually slipped out of the room.

The new board discussed conducting an audit of spending from recent years and ways to recover documents from an attorney that the old board had hired.

Residents offered suggestions and determined to come together, many recalling neighbor Peter Esseff's passionate speech earlier that evening.

"Our problem?" Esseff said, "We've been apathetic for many, many, many years."

He called for civility and unity moving forward.

"We need to say to ourselves, let's get on with this."