Simmering Summerfield homeowners association recall goes to Florida arbitrator


Article Courtesy of  St. Petersburg Times

By Victoria Bekiempis

February 19, 2009

RIVERVIEW Some residents were fed up. About $150,000 of the homeowners association's reserve money was spent wrongly, they believed and someone had to answer for it.

So a group in the sprawling Summerfield community gathered signatures to oust the board. But six months later, Summerfield's board hasn't budged.

That's because the board members say the petition process was rife with irregularities. The dispute has landed before a Tallahassee arbitrator.

Three months and several thousand dollars in legal fees later, the conflict rages on and might not conclude until October, about five months after some board members are up for re-election.

Depending on who's talking, the ongoing battle in the community off Big Bend Road is either about misplaced financial priorities or lingering personality conflicts.

Meet Lee Ann Daley, an eight-year resident who was the association's treasurer when the board voted to use reserve money for a community center addition and upgrades to accommodate handicapped people. She voted against it because she felt the decision was an abuse of spending power.

"I said, 'No, you can't do that,' " she said. "The board taking money out of the reserves was wrong, so I resigned."

Another resident pitched the idea of recalling the board. She learned that she needed a majority of residents to sign a recall petition. Ultimately, she said, 300 of 465 residents sided with her.

Rather than resign immediately, the board members picked apart her petition. Some signatures are invalid and others came from renters and people who had fallen behind in association dues, said board president Roland Santiago. The association followed Florida law by taking the issue to an arbitrator rather than immediately going forward with the proposed ouster, he added.

Santiago, who was among those targeted by the recall, chafed at the petition and reserve-spending conflict. Though some of the signatures were questionable, he said, the petition isn't representative of the community's wants.

"There are 3,400 homes in the community. The petition included 300 (names)," he said.

The dispute runs much deeper than reserve funds, Santiago said. Daley, whom he said had served a prior term on the board, wanted a shuffleboard court and activity room built rather than handicap-compliance improvements.

"Because she didn't get her project funded, she resigned," he said, attributing the tension to "personality conflicts."

Daley denies wanting a shuffleboard court, and said her last hours as a board member are characterized by deceptively inaccurate minutes. She agrees that her approach to some association issues might not have sat well with other board leaders.

"I tend to know what I'm talking about," she said. There was a time, she said, when another board member told her she came to meetings with an air of authority. "I have a very strong personality. I do a lot of research," she said. "I think they all disliked me. I don't think there was anyone there who cares for me. It's not a popularity contest."

Because of recall rules, Daley stands to be named as a board member should the petition hold. She insists she's not angling for power, and that she'll only take the unpaid position if no one else volunteers.

Brian Dwyer, who resigned his board position when he moved out of Summerfield in December, said there are questions as to whether Daley was forthright in the petition's language. He said the drive "was not handled properly," and "really just gave out tidbits of information." He described Daley's efforts as "cage rattling" and said money the board spent on lawyer's fees is a waste.

Lorraine Pinette, who led the petition drive along with Daley, countered that past history of reserve-fund spending gives reason for wariness.

None of the dozen or so residents at the community center on a recent weekday afternoon knew anything about the pending arbitration. And their opinions about the board were split between dislike and satisfaction.

The arbitrator will decide how many signatures are required for the recall, and whether those names were collected properly. Unlike criminal trials and civil suits, arbitrator's decisions don't set precedent like those of judges, said Mark Fenster, a professor and property-law expert at the University of Florida.

Lawyers who work on homeowners association cases might discuss the arbitrator's decision to prep for future cases, Fenster said, but each case is different.

"Any new dispute might have wrinkles in it," he said.