Proposed Poinciana board election bill failed

Article Courtesy of The Osceola News-Gazette

By Ken Jackson

Published October 11, 2015


The efforts of two local state legislators to help the residents of Poinciana have more transparent access to voting for its Association of Poinciana Villages Master Board representatives got no support last week from fellow Osceola County Legislative Delegation members.

A local bill was drafted by state Rep. John Cortes, D-Kissimmee, and supported by Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, that would have extended voting hours for board elections, allowed for voting by mail or proxy and outlawed at large members. It was presented at the delegation’s annual public meeting Oct. 2.

But a needed third vote didn’t come from the rest of the delegation: state Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, state Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, and Sen. Kelli Stargell, R-Lakeland.

Among their concerns were that the bill, with language specific to the 23,000 homeowners of Poinciana, would affect homeowners associations across the county. They also questioned whether parts of the bill would be found unconstitutional and would have the Poinciana villages in Polk County living under a different set of rules as those in Osceola County.

Soto lamented that the local bill didn’t pass.

“This was drafted for two reasons: to protect the property rights of owners, and maintain their voting rights,” he said at the public meeting. “I will always side with property owners over the powers that be. People didn’t feel like they have a way to elect who they want to the Master Board. This bill addresses all that.”

Cortes, who said he’s spent the past couple of months dealing directly with Poinciana residents and much less with APV officials who won’t call him back, wrote the bill in search of bringing Poinciana HOA elections in line with the transparent nature that elections for public officials are held under.

“This is about legitimacy, about those who govern gaining their office fairly,” he said. “To lose the voters’ trust is to case a shadow of illegitimacy.”

Residents, and a pair of lawyers speaking on their behalf, gave evidence that during elections, AV Homes (formerly known as Avatar) has cast as many as 1,500 votes before the polls close.

“Of the 35 village seats, 25 are controlled by the developer,” attorney Steven Sepulveres said. “Even though 97 percent of parcels have been sold to private residents, AV Homes is pledging votes of things they perceive they own, and they’ve never been challenged.”

Fellow attorney Chris Wright said residents feel “beaten down” because it is apparent that, “AV always wins.

“If they feel like it’s more fair, more residents will exercise their right to vote,” he said. “This bill would help all residents of Osceola County with increased access to HOA voting systems.”

AV Vice President of Land Development Tony Iorio is the Master Board representative for Village 4, which has no homes on any lots. He is also listed as a member of seven of the nine village boards on records obtained by the News-Gazette. Messages left for him at his office and with the APV public relations staff were not returned at press time Friday.

Felix Gratopp, whose address is listed as a Fort Myers law firm, is on the board of five of the villages.

Mark Maldonado, who has served as the general manager of FirstService Residential — the management company brought on to service APV about three years ago — said the HOA is in the process of improving its communication in the community.

“We’ve instituted village meetings, but with over 70,000 residents, it’s a work in progress,” he said.

When asked if he would be open to extending voting by five hours to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., he was non-committal.

One of the provisions of the bill — to have the Osceola County Supervisor of Elections’ office verify election totals for a fee — was removed during delegation discussion.

But it was not enough to get the vote of La Rosa, who brought up the topic of the bill being found unconstitutional.

“Why use our time and resources on a law that can’t stand?” he asked. “I don’t want to support sloppy legislation coming out of this delegation.

“We have a sizeable problem in Poinciana with what’s going on with the HOA. I want to address it but not waste my time and energy on something that won’t help the residents down the line.”

Combee said he could give more support to a bill that only addressed HOAs over a certain size.

Cortes, who also said he plans to take a statewide HOA bill to Tallahassee when the 2016 legislative session begins in January, also lamented the local bill’s lack of support.

“You people have been suffering with Avatar for 15 years, so I’m sad,” he said.

Earlier this year, prior APV Master Board President Peter Jolly questioned the spending and actions of FSR. When he could not get a copy of a requested audit, he moved $1.4 million to a non-FSR controlled account and removed computers from the APV offices in August. The Master Board followed by voting to remove him from the executive position, and a Polk County court demanded Jolly reverse his actions two weeks later.

The APV board has been in a tumultuous state ever since, prompting Cortes to pen the local bill, he said.