Homeowner association actions spawn rebellion
Discontent over the tactics of a community association's manager precipitate an election fight that's going to state arbitration. The bitterness may end up in court.
Article Courtesy of The Sarasota Herald-Tribune
CHARLOTTE COUNTY, Fla. -- Kim Jakubaitis moved to the deed-restricted Deep Creek community for the manicured lawns and tidy houses. But lately, she said, she feels like she lives under a warlord.
Two weeks after Hurricane Charley -- a time when her neighborhood had no electricity and the Red Cross still doled out meals -- her community association's manager, Lee Dunn, called deputies to her home.
Dunn's beef: A tree-removal company the Jakubaitises hired had stacked debris from their yard on a roadside swale and left the road caked with mud.
Although the deputies ''thought it was ridiculous and they left,'' Kim Jakubaitis and husband Steve didn't let it go.
The couple, who in their 13 years in Deep Creek had never voted in an association election, joined other disgruntled residents to launch a grass-roots effort to get new blood on the board.
Now they find themselves in the middle of a contentious legal fight to overturn the results of an election they say was unfairly stolen after about two-thirds of the votes cast for Kim Jakubaitis and two other candidates were disqualified.
In the background are claims of election fraud, a libel lawsuit and complaints to a state licensing agency -- all directed at Dunn.
The quarrel comes as community association politics have become increasingly contentious and as people strike back at associations they once felt powerless against -- or content to ignore.
Now a state law passed last year is helping members hold their associations accountable.
Ellen Hirsch de Haan, a Largo attorney who represents more than 350 community associations, has seen decorum take a nose dive.
That seems to hold true in Section 20, as the property owners' association -- one of two in Deep Creek -- is called. The group has developed a reputation for rancorous meetings that require security by off-duty sheriff's deputies.
The quarrel is entering state offices, where residents hope a third party can settle the disputed election.
The law, which took effect Oct. 1, gives residents the ability to seek binding arbitration through the state to settle election disputes. It also entitles members to get more association records, makes it possible for members to add items to meeting agendas, and requires year-end financial reports.
The Jakubaitises are among the first eight arbitration requests the state has received.
''It's a cheaper route than going to court,'' said Mike Cochran, director of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation's Division of Land Sales, Condominiums and Mobile Homes. It's also quicker. Cochran, whose office handles the arbitrations, hopes to wrap up cases in 60 to 90 days.
Homeowners' associations typically allow voting by proxy, a type of ballot that allows owners to select candidates without attending meetings. Usually, members get one vote for each property they hold.
Kim Jakubaitis, Michael Della Camera and Mike Brown -- who campaigned together for three open seats -- say they gathered more than 950 votes in their favor, the most ever in a board race. In the weeks before the election, the candidates and their backers had canvassed the community, getting people to vote for them rather than the three candidates put forward by the association.
But on Dec. 28, they learned that more than 600 ballots they gathered were disqualified or otherwise weren't counted. They each ended up with about 330 votes. The three winners -- Robert Evans, Edward Halle, and David Mooney -- each had about 600.
But Evans, who was appointed secretary a few months ago to fill a vacancy, said he was uneasy with the way ballots were invalidated. Some were thrown out on technicalities such as being marked with more than one color of ink. Evans was so uncomfortable with the process that he called Dunn the morning of the election to resign.
''He said, `Well, could you wait until after the meeting?''' said Evans, a relative newcomer to Deep Creek. ``I said no, I don't want to be involved in this mess.''
But those who attended the association meeting that night said Dunn told the throng that Evans wasn't there because his wife was sick.
''I don't know where that lie came from,'' Evans said.
Dunn said he doesn't know who checked the ballots.
''If [Evans] is not doing it, I don't know who's doing it,'' Dunn said. ``I'm amazed that he'd say that. That's the secretary's job. It's always been.''
Residents say Dunn is at the center of all the controversy. Critics say he uses heavy-handed tactics to enforce community standards.
Until term limits forced Dunn to take a one-year hiatus from the board, he was both president and association manager, earning $45,000 a year in that job.
His opponents say the arrangement gave him too much power.
''There's nothing illegal about it,'' said Kevin Edwards, a community associations attorney in Sarasota. ``But it presents an appearance of impropriety. It can result in a conflict of interest.''
And residents say Dunn's actions are costing them money.
Many residents objected to the association's attempt to charge them $80 per lot for hurricane cleanup without first putting it to a vote. The fee would have generated $313,000 from Section 20's 3,910 lots.
''It's not just funny anymore,'' Della Camera said. ``It's big money here.''
The association eventually agreed to the vote, and at the election, it announced that the fee was defeated. Then, in a bizarre twist, the association announced Jan. 11 that it had overlooked some votes Dunn had collected and that the fee actually passed.
While the association is going to arbitration over the board election, the Deep Creek conflict goes beyond the dispute over who sits on the board.
In early December, Section 20 posted an alert on its website warning of a ''personal agenda'' and urging people to attend the annual meeting.
The notice included a statement that ''Michael Della Camera has a criminal record.'' Della Camera said he learned that copies of his mug shot also were inserted into the bylaws that the association's office handed out.
Della Camera was charged with battery and assault after a February 2000 domestic dispute with his former wife. She told a deputy that he chased her with a claw hammer and threatened her.
The state attorney's office didn't prosecute the case. According to county and Florida Department of Law Enforcement records, Della Camera has never been found guilty of a crime.
On Dec. 15, Della Camera filed a libel and slander lawsuit against Dunn.
When asked if he wrote or allowed the alert, Dunn said: ``We're going to let a man with . . . a wooden hammer and a black robe decide that.''
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