Creek ousts official
Verna Towne had held dual positions for the homeowners association.
|BY JAMIE MANFUSO
Article Courtesy of HeraldTribune.com
DEEP CREEK -- The meeting of a Deep Creek homeowners association started 30 minutes late, and it took a boisterous crowd of about 400 people another half-hour just to get to the Pledge of Allegiance.
But when it finally ended -- after nearly three hours of catcalls and squabbling -- the association filled its open seats and sent a controversial board member packing.
Incumbent Lee Dunn, running with with newcomers Richard Wright and Dick Johnson, won a tight race for the three open seats on the Section 20 Property Owners Association. Longtime Board Member Verna Towne and two candidates on her ticket, Mike Brown and Ken Doherty, all lost.
Towne is also the paid property manager for the association, which encompasses all of Deep Creek north of Sandhill Boulevard. Dunn has claimed that Towne, who oversees the association's day-to-day activities as manager, has used her dual positions to rule the community with an iron fist.
He has also pushed for a full audit of the association's financial records.
"We're going to clean it up and fix it up now," Dunn said at the end of the meeting.
Thursday morning, at its first meeting, the new board elected Dunn as its president. The board immediately initiated an audit of the association's financial records for the past year.
But board members also had to take on unexpected duties. Towne fired the association's secretary Wednesday evening, leaving no one to answer the office phones, Dunn said.
Dunn said that the secretary could not be fired without board approval and that it would try to rehire the former employee.
Towne's contract allows her to continue as property manager -- a job that paid her $52,500 last budget year -- until September 2003. Dunn said the board will honor that contract as long as Towne fulfills her duties.
Towne could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Wednesday's meeting ended an election that has been in limbo since Oct. 23, when the association was originally supposed to make its selections. Association attorney Darol H.M. Carr, saying there wasn't enough time to verify proxy votes, declared an emergency and closed that meeting.
At first, it wasn't clear that winners would be announced Wednesday night. Almost as soon as the meeting started, homeowners began speaking out of turn.
Towne banged a gavel on the lectern.
"One more interruption and I will cancel this meeting," she shouted.
Several sheriff's deputies stood watch over the proceedings.
Later, parliamentarian George Gange took over the meeting. Parliamentarians are people versed in Robert's Rules of Order, the code of conduct for such meetings.
But Gange had trouble moving the meeting along without interruptions.
"We don't want to wait another 30 or 60 days to have an election," Gange said.
Gange was visibly agitated by Dunn, who frequently declared "point of order" and took over the microphone from Gange. At one point, near the meeting's end, Gange turned off the microphone while Dunn was using it.
Many in the audience expressed surprise that a homeowners association meeting could have the entertainment value of the "Jerry Springer" show.
"It's better than staying home and watching TV," said one man.
County Commissioner Tom D'Aprile, whose district includes Deep Creek, also attended the meeting.
"It was as good as Friday night at the fights," he said.
struggle inflames homeowners association
A Deep Creek Section 20 board member says that president Verna Towne exceeded her authority.
|BY JAMIE MANFUSO
Article Courtesy of HeraldTribune.com
CHARLOTTE COUNTY -- A power struggle raging in a Deep Creek homeowners association is one part "Seinfeld" and another part Florida 2000 election recount.
Claims of a rigged election, calls for an Internal Revenue Service audit of the association's books and a petition drive to oust the association's law firm have combined for a bizarre drama in recent weeks.
At the center of the conflict are Verna Towne, president of the Section 20 Property Owners Association board of directors, and Lee Dunn, the board's vice president. Both are up for re-election to the five-member board.
Since 1992, when developer Punta Gorda Isles relinquished control of Deep Creek to two property owners associations, Towne has been the property manager of the association. Her three-year contract, renewed by the board in the fall of 2000, paid her $52,500 this past budget year. Among other duties, Towne oversees the greenways and ditches, supervises code enforcement and reviews building permits.
Towne, 71, also has sat on the board of directors during that time, except when term limits required her to take a year off.
Towne's dual roles have allowed her to wield considerable power within Section 20's micro-government, which encompasses all of Deep Creek north of Sandhill Boulevard.
Dunn, 60, claims that Towne has overstepped her authority by enforcing the community's deed restrictions selectively and leaving board members out of decisions.
"Nothing is brought to the board to be voted on," said Dunn, a 12-year Deep Creek resident who has been on the board the past two years.
Property owners were supposed to elect three board members at the association's annual meeting on Oct. 23. But when the board members took their seats, they found a pre-written script that included the names of the winners. Towne's name was among them, but Dunn's wasn't, according to board members.
Dunn, who pushed a separate ballot with three different candidates, arrived at the meeting with more than 700 proxy votes -- enough to get Towne out of office. Instead of declaring victory for Dunn's ticket, however, association's attorney Darol H.M. Carr declared an emergency and closed the meeting.
Carr, who has been Towne's personal attorney and was selected by her to serve the association, said he was questioning nearly 200 of Dunn's proxies and still needed time to verify them.
Proxies are documents that allow one person to vote on behalf of another.
Board member Mike Celaya said many property owners present -- about 400 attended the meeting at Victoria Estates -- wanted a decision that night. But Celaya said there wasn't enough time to validate the votes.
"Each one of these documents has to be looked at, verified and then counted," Celaya said. "There just wasn't enough time to do it and do it correctly."
Towne declined on several occasions to be interviewed for this article. Carr could not be reached for comment.
Both sides have continued to scramble for proxy votes. The final results of the election are expected to be announced at a meeting scheduled for Wednesday evening at Victoria Estates.
In the meantime, Dunn and his backers have been gathering signatures in support of an IRS audit of the association's books. They are also circulating a separate petition urging that Carr's law firm of Farr, Farr, Emerich, Sifrit, Hackett and Carr be removed.
It's made for a scene reminiscent of "Seinfeld," which sometimes parodied a Florida condo owners association where suspicious members called for investigations of the finances.
In Deep Creek, though, people are serious.
Board member Celaya said that while Towne may come across as overbearing, overseeing Section 20's 3,910 properties is a thankless job.
"She at times doesn't treat people or handle people the way they should be," Celaya said. "But her skills as a manager and her dedication to keeping the property values up, in terms of enforcing restrictions, have been really good."
Norman Rosenberg, a Pennsylvania man who is having a house built in Deep Creek, said he witnessed first-hand Towne's insistence that codes be followed. When Rosenberg was visiting the association offices, a woman asked Towne if she could build a 4-foot-high fence to keep her child from escaping. Restrictions limit fences to three feet.
The homeowner didn't have a fence problem, Towne said. She had a parenting problem.
"It's the deed restrictions that keep this place looking the way it does," Rosenberg said.
Dunn said he has been slapped with notices about minor code infractions such as leaving a ladder out on the side of the house. He said a neighbor who had borrowed the ladder left it there.
But more serious violations, such as old cars left in the driveway, are allowed to slip by under Towne, Dunn said. In recent weeks his supporters have taken photographs of code violations that have gone unreported.
Towne's dual position as both board member and property manager is extremely uncommon for community associations, said an Orlando attorney who specializes in them.
"It's really hard to convince people you're acting in their own best interests when you're also getting paid," said Paul L. Wean, a member of the Community Associations Institute, a nationwide nonprofit organization promoting those associations' interests.
"A lot of the decisions that the unpaid director will make will impact the salary, the work schedule, the chores, the ease of the performance of the job of the paid manager," Wean said.
He also said it's rare for a property manager to have the sole authority to select the association's attorney and accounting firms. Towne's contract gives her that exclusive right.
Dunn, whose wife Betty works in advertising for the Herald-Tribune, has gotten attorney Warren Ross to represent his group in the proxy battle.
The boards of the Section 23 Property Owner's Association, also in Deep Creek, and the Rotonda West Association, choose their attorneys. The property managers for both communities live elsewhere.