Management, board must go

Published July 4, 2002 
Article Courtesy of the Miami Herald

Residents of the Northwest Miami-Dade community of Sorbet Patio Homes are demanding that a new board of directors be elected for their homeowners association and the management company be replaced.

Homeowners are paying a $48 monthly maintenance fee and some say they are not receiving services.

At a meeting Friday at the nearby Joella Good Elementary School, 6350 NW 188th Ter., about 120 people of about 255 homeowners showed up -- which was shy of a quorum to force the election of new board members.

'When I started paying these maintenance fees, I asked my wife, `What is the $48 for? What does it include?' '' Eddie Lefont said. ``She wasn't sure. So I started investigating and asking questions.''

Lefont and other homeowners trace the problem to former association president Roberto Del Valle, who appointed a new board when he resigned in February.

''We didn't have any knowledge of this,'' resident Jackie Jackson said. ``I was never informed.''

Del Valle became association president in early 2001. In August, he started Country Lakes Management Company, working as an independent contractor from his home.

The board hired his company in March to carry out maintenance duties such as lawn and electrical services, security and repairing fences.

Some residents say they have seen little maintenance work done since then.

''We live in a very bad flood zone and the drainage happens to be in front of my driveway and gets clogged because [dead leaves] fall from a tree and clog it,'' Jackson said. ``They should clean it, but they don't.''

Board members blame it on a shortage of funds. Residents have a different view.

Jackson said when residents bought their homes, the community by-laws said maintenance work was part of the duties of the association and its management company.

''All of a sudden, there's no money? Where's my $48 going?'' Jackson asked.

Association vice president Miguel Gonzalez said $48 is not enough.

''I know the streets flood. I know the drains are half-collapsed. But we need money,'' he said.

Jackson also questions two proposals Del Valle made to the board in early June.

The first proposal is to build an irrigation system that requires a $150,000 bank loan. Residents would repay the loan through a special assessment fee that is still to be set, in addition to their monthly maintenance fee.

Del Valle's second proposal is to replace the wooden fences, at a cost of $800,000, through another special assessment fee.

Replacing the fences ''is a board decision,'' Del Valle said. ``When I was president, we started rebuilding fences. But, three or four fences later, all the money's gone because each fence costs $2,000 [to rebuild].''

If homeowners reject a fence special assessment, board members will consider a suggestion from Del Valle at a June 5 meeting that the association's by-laws be amended to transfer ownership of all fences to the homeowners, making them responsible for their upkeep.

Resident Mike Ruiz would rather hire a company to fix his own fence for $250 than pay a special assessment fee.

''At this point, I feel that Bob [Del Valle] created a problem,'' Ruiz said. ``It may have been in the best interest for the community, but it doesn't look like it is in the best interest of the community.''

The Country Village Master Homeowners Association, which has power over the smaller homeowners groups in the area, was called in to investigate the situation at Sorbet. Gus Exposito, president of the umbrella organization, said he didn't like what he saw.

''This board of directors has only been in existence for a few months and all of a sudden they're making million-dollar decisions,'' Exposito said in an interview. ``The board of directors is holding illegal meetings without posting [signs up for homeowners] and they are violating the Sunshine Law by having meetings at individual homes.''

Gonzalez refutes that claim. He said the problem was homeowners' indifference toward the work of the association.

''People don't pay attention, they don't want to get involved,'' Gonzalez said.

Sorbet opened 16 years ago and since then the Sorbet Patio Homes Homeowners Association has had nine boards of directors. But this is the first time board members have seen such a groundswell of complaints from homeowners.

The uproar began June 26 when about 60 residents showed up at the Joella Good Elementary parking lot waiting to meet board members and Del Valle -- now assistant property manager. The officials did not appear because the meeting had been postponed, but Exposito was present and got an earful from residents who said they had not known about the postponement.

The meeting had been rescheduled for Friday, when board members met with homeowners and Exposito. The proposed agenda consisted of an overview of rules and regulations, discussion of an irrigation system and bids and implementation of a citizen's crime-watch group. Homeowners, however, used the meeting to air their grievances.

Lefont said the board must be restructured before real change can occur.

''Get rid of the management company, to begin with,'' he said. ``We need to become self-managed or have them rebid the management companies and have a reputable management company take over.''

Jackson had already gone one step further. During the gathering June 26, she started a petition drive to recall the directors. The petition requires signatures from 50 percent of the residents, plus one, to become effective and enable homeowners to elect a new board. Jackson said as of Monday, 70 people had signed it. The petition will be sent to the Exposito's master association for action.

Homeowners and board members will resume discussion of the issues at the next homeowners association meeting, which is expected to take place in two weeks.

Exposito sees hope for a resolution.

''This meeting seemed very productive,'' he said Friday. ``A lot of people were venting, and I think eventually they will find a mutual agreement.''

But association vice-president Gonzalez said he didn't see a resolution just yet. He quit the board during Friday's meeting, saying he was fed up with the complaints and personal attacks.

''For $48 a month, they want a neighborhood similar to Coral Lakes or Doral. But if I, as a board member, ask for input, homeowners say they are too busy,'' Gonzalez said. ``It's a problem. Everybody wants a piece of the cake, but nobody wants to get dirty with the flour.''