Fairness is the goal


Article Courtesy of Sun Sentinel

By Marci Shatzman
Published on Sun, Oct. 31, 2004


A bill creating a state ombudsman for homeowner associations is expected to be introduced in the state Legislature in December.

It's the latest effort of the statewide Cyber Citizens for Justice Inc. to rein in homeowner association board authority and restore rights to residents.

The bill calls for a position similar to the condo ombudsman, implemented in the round of new condo and homeowner association laws that went into effect in June and October. The ombudsman is a neutral third party who solves disputes between condo owners and boards.

The homeowner association ombudsman would share an office with the condo ombudsman in Tallahassee. Homeowner association residents would pay $4 a year to fund the office, which is how the new condo ombudsman works.

If the homeowner association watchdog bill passes, it will be none too soon for 20 residents in Valencia Lakes west of Boynton Beach, who object to a $1,000 assessment levied by their board for hurricane damage and the way it was handled.

"The board worked hard, but the manner in which [they presented this] alienated us," Fred Kleiman said. He and Mary Gallo, Eileen Stehley and Rich Glaski were the handful of residents willing to give their names.

The group said their board rushed to arrive at a figure they consider excessive. They contend the board didn't wait for Palm Beach County's new tree replacement policy, so it couldn't know how much it would cost to replace downed trees. They said board members were unreceptive to residents with cost-cutting suggestions.

They said they resent the way the assessment was presented without community feedback or an initial accounting of expenses. They claim the board changed what the assessment was called to meet legal requirements after residents questioned it.

Since the assessment, the board has conducted four neighborhood meetings and is allowing residents to pay $400 up front, and $100 a month, after initially demanding the money in a lump sum. "They were given another month to come forward with the grand," Mary said.

But the concessions haven't quieted all the complaints.

Board president Esther Hersh said the board had no recourse. The community had 350 downed trees, and initial invoices to clear and open the community totaled $151,000, she said. The community expects to replace at least 202 trees, she said.

But the trees were just part of the problems that had to be addressed. The community sustained sewage backups and damage to the tennis courts, clubhouse, pool and a fence.

"They all felt this assessment was illegal, but it isn't illegal. We had the advice of our attorney," Esther said. "If we come out ahead, I promised residents a refund."

Residents have no place to take their protests except to the courts or the press. They've decided not to sue, because it would only be suing themselves, they said.

Their situation is the kind of case that would be brought before the homeowner association ombudsman, said Jan Bergemann, president of Cyber Citizens.

The ombudsman would settle complaints through arbitration and mediation.

"It would bring people to the table before it escalates," he said.

To reach Bergemann, go to the group's Web site at www.ccfj.net.