Condo reforms await Bush's OK
Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Joe Kollin 
Published: May 28, 2004

For residents of condominium communities, an ombudsman may soon be appointed to help resolve disputes between owners and boards.

Residents in homeowner associations, meanwhile, may soon have the right to display the American flag on certain holidays without interference from their boards.

If Gov. Jeb Bush approves the bills passed by the Legislature during its session, which ended April 30, several hard-fought changes will become law, affecting millions of state residents.

The bills have not hit Bush's desk yet. Once they do, he has 15 days to sign them.

The legislative fight was the hardest-fought between boards and owners since 1991, when the condo law was last overhauled.

Those leading the fight for reform were Jan Bergemann of St. Augustine, president and founder of Cyber Citizens for Justice, and Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami, chairman of the House Select Committee on Condominium Association Governance, who led the charge in both houses.

"I'd say we did very well considering the law firms [representing associations] wanted to kill the entire legislation from the get-go," Robaina said Monday. "The law firms won on some points, but we got our foot in the door and that's the main thing for us."

The Legislature passed the proposals he considered most important -- the ombudsman, who will be given money to hire 14 assistants statewide, and the grandfathering of rental rights.

Under current law, associations can change policy and ban renting, even if some owners bought their units as rental properties. As approved, the law will say any revision in rental policy will only affect those who buy after the change takes effect.

To get those measures passed, Robaina said he sacrificed some proposals, such as giving the ombudsman power to remove directors, a bill that would have made it more difficult for association attorneys to foreclose, and a requirement that a majority of owners approve any special assessment.

Bergemann, whose organization serves as an umbrella for several condo and homeowner association groups, also called the legislative session a success. It was its first time going to Tallahassee to fight for owners.

"We got a lot, we made a lot of progress, but there is still a lot of work left," said Bergemann, who hopes to get a state agency to help protect residents in homeowner association communities.

This year, the group helped win the ombudsman for condo owners.

Next year, he said, Cyber Citizens will spend $25,000 for a professional lobbyist to accomplish more.

"We found that in Tallahassee, you need to know all the angles, which we as normal homeowners didn't," Bergemann said. "Lobbyists get in the doors of legislators' offices while you sit in the waiting room."

The organization already has half the money needed for the lobbyist.

Gary Poliakoff, whose law firm represents more associations than any other in the state, said he, too, is ready for next year.

"In so far as being geared up for Robaina, Bergemann and any others, I've been visiting Tallahassee for 32 years while the Bergemanns and Robainas come and go," said Poliakoff, who pointed out that some of the defeated proposals would have wreaked havoc on associations by discouraging owners from serving on boards.

Even Robaina conceded some proposals he originally sought won't be considered again because he now realizes they won't work. They include requiring financial disclosure from directors, criminal background checks of board members and limiting one person to one vote no matter how many units the person owns.

For the first time in the battle over community living rules, homeowner associations were represented equally with condos.

Among the changes for them: a requirement that boards give owners notice of meetings, a ban on boards demanding a reason why an owner wants to inspect a board's records; and a requirement that the state Department of Business & Professional Regulation provide mediation and arbitration services.

Robaina said he plans to meet this summer with Sen. Rudy Garcia, R-Miami, to completely rewrite the condo and homeowner laws. He wants to do it in a way that avoids the hostility of the last few months.

"I want to come up with something that will avoid another war like the one we had this year," he said.

Posted May 28 2004


Establish an ombudsman, appointed by the governor, who will open offices throughout the state to make recommendations on condo issues; help owners, directors and managers understand their rights; help prepare educational material; monitor election disputes and help boards carry out their duties. Six owners, or 15 percent of the association members, whichever is greater, must sign a request before the ombudsman can act.

Forbid any new ban on renting from being applied retroactively to existing owners.

Create a seven-member state advisory council on condominiums.

Let associations exempt themselves from installing handrails and guardrails in buildings for seniors and from installing fire sprinklers in common areas.

Forbid boards from levying assessments or changing rules that regulate how owners use their unit unless written notice is given within 14 days.

Limit the liability of associations that provide automated external defibrillators to help save lives.

Require that individual sellers provide question-and-answer sheets to buyers.

Protect associations from liability for information they provide to someone purchasing from an owner.


Allow contracts for purchasing houses to be canceled within three days if the seller doesn't provide certain information, including a warning that buyers must belong to an association.

Extend the 30-year period that associations can exist.

Let every homeowner display the American flag up to a certain size on certain days.

Make it illegal for an association to sue its members for exercising free speech.

Prohibit associations from filing liens and foreclosing on owners for unpaid fines.

Require boards give owners notice of meetings, let owners attend and speak.

Force boards to discuss an issue if 20 percent of owners sign a petition demanding it.

Forbid boards from a demanding a reason why an owner wants to inspect its records.

Require the state Department of Business & Professional Regulation provide mediation and arbitration services.

Set minimum standards for reporting an association's financial affairs to its members.

Allow the forced removal of directors, with or without cause.

Limit the liability of associations that provide automated external defibrillators to help save lives.