Article Courtesy of The
By Mike Ferguson
Published August 15, 2017
Homeowners have long considered the Association of Poinciana Villages’ election
process to be a mess. But the situation looks to have gotten a bit messier
following the Aug. 1 “redo” election.
Developer Avatar, now AV Homes, was again
the big winner of the Association of Poinciana Villages
election, and the civic nonprofit Friends of Poinciana
Villages was again the big loser. The results however,
hardly begin to tell the whole story.
How we got here
Last week’s election was held as a replacement election
after the Feb. 14 results were voided June 23 by Terri Leigh
Jones, an arbitrator with the Department of Business and
Professional Regulation. The arbitration was brought forward
by resident and Village Seven candidate Martin Negron.
Negron’s claim was that the vote count given to Avatar was
exaggerated because the developer claimed lands that were
submerged and undevelopable because of conservation
restrictions. Negron also claimed the developer exaggerates
its count by claiming that more houses could be developed on
certain parcels than permitted by current zoning
APV is a community of nearly 27,000 people that spans parts of Polk and
Osceola counties. According to APV’s bylaws, each property owner is given
one vote per open seat in his or her village for each property owned. For
undeveloped properties, Avatar is given one vote per home that could be
The community is broken up into nine villages of five-member boards. Each
village selects one board member to serve on the APV master board.
Jones ruled that APV was “capricious” in the way it counted votes and
ordered that all developer votes be accounted for. Keith Laytham, a
spokesman for Friends of Poinciana Villages, estimated that Avatar should
have been allotted about 500 votes last week based on property-appraiser
data. The developer cast close to 9,900 votes during the election. That
number was more than 10,000 during the February election.
“I’m not sure what can be done retroactively to fix the situation, but
creative minds can fix the situation,” said Bob Doyel, D-Winter Haven, a
candidate running for Florida Senate District 22, which encompasses the Polk
side of Poinciana. “I’ve always been one to come up with creative ideas. We
need a new homeowners’ Bill of Rights.”
The result from the second election held Aug. 1 shows that not a single one
of the 19 candidates endorsed by Friends of Poinciana Villages won a board
seat. AV Homes and Canadian Investment company Fairhomes Properties won 11
of the 13 seats for which they had employed candidates on the ballot. Had
block votes, or cluster votes cast by the developer, been omitted, each of
the 19 candidates backed by Friends of Poinciana Villages would have been
“What we can do is give our residents in Poinciana the right to be a city,”
Doyel said. “I don’t know if that’s in their best interest, but they should
have some right to decide. They have little voice.”
The biggest controversy of the night came after Village One votes were
nullified because the number of votes did not reach the required 10 percent
threshold of total homes in the village. Five hundred thirty votes were cast
for that village with 309 coming from the developer. Six hundred were
As a result, the three members who held their posts prior to February
election will serve another three-year term. During February’s election, 562
votes were cast in the village, but the results were not nullified.
Anthony Iorio, vice president of development for AV Homes, won seats for
Villages Three, Five, Seven and Eight. Dan Young, a land-development manager
for Av Homes, won seats for Villages Two and Five. Felix Gratopp, a director
for Fairhomes, which owns properties in the community, won seats for
Villages Two, Three, Seven and Eight.
Other winners are Darrell Rodabaugh (Village Two), Maria Carle (Village
Three), Alexis Desangles and Shane Merali (Village Seven) and Pablo Campos
The reason AV Homes was able to again cast thousands of votes was because of
a July 21 ruling in the 10th Judicial Circuit Court. A judge ruled in
Avatar’s favor in a lawsuit that forced APV to give the developer votes
based on maximum density regulations. Spokeswoman Michelle Griffith said
that can range from 5 to 20 homes per acre based on the platting.
“The Association of Poinciana Villages greatly appreciates the work the
Courts and DBPR did in reviewing APV’s election processes,” an APV statement
reads. “Thanks to the two Orders issued by the DBPR and the Declaratory
Judgment issued by the Polk County Circuit Court, APV was given direction on
how to account for votes cast for unplatted tracts of land. Going forward,
APV will recognize the developer’s right granted by each Village Association
to cast votes on behalf of its unplatted tracts of land without platting
“We’ve been wrestling in the 10th Judicial Court for 18 months,” Laytham
said. “APV’s argument is that HOA elections have no place in circuit court.
Yet, here we are.”
The suit Laytham was referring to involves FOPV members Annette Brown-Best,
Victor Destremps and Peter Jolly on claims similar to Negron’s. Jennifer
Englert, an Orlando-based lawyer representing the trio, said according to a
1985 agreement between Avatar and APV, the developer was supposed to cease
control of the community. That, she said, means not casting large block
votes and to stop serving on the community boards.
“Poinciana is so old, and that’s why it’s so convoluted,” Englert said.
“They have no interest in letting the citizens govern. The developer does
not even have to pay any HOA fees, yet they run the community.”
Three previous lawsuits have been dismissed without prejudice because the
complainants have not been able to get the correct wording to move forward.
“They have tried to dismiss the whole thing, but it has survived,” Englert
said. “Our complaint is good. Part of our complaint has been allowed, but
they’ve nitpicked little things that have been dismissed.”
In June 2016, a lawsuit filed by APV successfully forced Destremps and Jolly
to repay money taken from the association in August 2015. The two men are
former APV board members and broke into an APV office after hours and took
$1.6 million and placed it into an account that only they had access to. The
majority of the money was paid back a month after it was taken when APV
filed an injunction.
On Aug. 3, Jones, the arbitrator, filed a complaint with the Florida Bar
against APV’s Orlando-based lawyer, Tom Slaten. Jones has since recused
herself from any future DBPR case because of the filing.
“After the filing of the motion, the arbitrator has been made aware of the
existence of a circuit court case involving the same dispute,” a legal
document signed by Jones reads. “Pursuant to Florida Bar Rules of
Professional Conduct 4-8.3(a), the arbitrator has an ethical duty to report
to the Florida Bar the failure to disclose to the arbitrator the existence
of the circuit court case while the arbitration case was pending.”
Jones noted in her letter to the Florida Bar that Avatar filed its complaint
in the 10th Judicial Circuit on July 7 and that Slaten responded on behalf
of APV on July 11. The arbitrator denied Slaten and APV’s request for a
rehearing July 12.
The arbitrator was never notified nor was Negron of the circuit court
hearing, Jones wrote. She added that by not being notified, Negron was
precluded from intervening in that hearing.
“They put up no defense whatsoever,” Laytham said. “They didn’t let DBPR
know; they didn’t let Mr. Negron know.
Slaten could not be reached Sunday or Monday and spokespeople for APV did
not respond to an email inquiry.
A conflict of interest?
Laytham said the perceived favorable treatment for Avatar when it comes to
elections is not his group’s only concern with Slaten and his law firm,
Larsen & Associates. At the April master board meeting, the firm was given
the right to debt collection throughout the villages, Laytham said. Laytham
said since the election of that board in February was voided by an
arbitrator, any action taken between the Feb. 14 election and last week
should be negated.
“To me, that smells,” Laytham said. “There isn’t a person who I’ve talked to
that thinks this is fair.”
Laytham said there are a large number of homeowners who have expressed
concern about questionable debt-collection practices from the firm. Laytham
said once a resident is delinquent on even small payments, the debts go
directly to collections where they snowball and late payments paid to APV
still won’t circumvent having to go through the collections process.
Benny Valentine, a resident and former candidate for State House who ran on
homeowners’ association reform, said this is hardly anything new. In 2013,
he said, debts were sold to a Canadian company and then sold in perpetuity
to the point it was hard to find to whom to pay the debts. Valentine said he
was late paying his annual dues of $252 one year and now owes about $10,000
on that debt.
“They have a bunch of people paying themselves,” Doyel said. ”(Residents) do
not get to decide how their dues get spent. They’re basically paying Avatar
to decide that, and they should be able to decide how to spend their own
In a letter from the firm to a homeowner whose name was crossed out dated
Aug. 2 – one day after the election – the homeowner is assessed his or her
annual dues of $252, an administration fee of $5, an attorney fee for
preparing the intent to lien of $125, a $250 attorney fee for preparing the
verification of debt letter, copy charges of $3.36 and postage costs of
nearly $22. The resident was given a $68 credit, which Laytham said was for
paying three payments and a $5 late fee, but the total came to more than
“If the balance due of $589.14 is not received on or before August 17, 2017,
our client has advised us to proceed with a foreclosure action against you
and your property,” reads the letter signed by attorney Charles Eldredge.
“Here they are trying to make ends meet and they miss one payment and they
owe hundreds of dollars,” Laytham said.