Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal
March 11, 2006
BEACH, Fla. -- The bitter campaign at the beachfront Parker Plaza condominiums
here featured 17 candidates challenging incumbents for all nine seats on the
association's governing board. Accusations flew about the design of an outdoor
fountain, the cost of the biometric hand scan at the front door and a proposed
$14.3 million assessment for hurricane-resistant windows and some repairs,
which would have set back some unit owners nearly $28,000. One of a series of
anonymous fliers took a gratuitous dig at a candidate's new car: "How
about the new Jaguar you got."
when residents here finally went to the polls, the ballots were counted under
the watchful eye of government-appointed election monitors to squelch any
doubt about the results.
monitors are usually sent to watch over voting in developing countries and war
zones. But in Florida -- home to infamous hanging chads and other election
irregularities that led to the 2000 presidential recount
-- the state
legislature has created a new office to oversee some of its most contentious
races: the battle for condo board seats.
my job to make sure the people get their vote," says Bill Raphan who,
with his wife Susan, works in the new state office, called the Condominium
Ombudsman. The office, which has five employees and an annual budget of
roughly $444,000, oversees elections, mediates disputes and runs workshops to
election night at Parker Plaza last month, Mr. Raphan and his wife sorted
through a stack of about 400 secret ballots and checked them twice against a
list of eligible voters. At previous elections, there were fears that the
ballots were being steamed open or thrown out. So this year, nearly half the
residents mailed their ballots in advance to Mr. Raphan's office in nearby
Fort Lauderdale for safekeeping.
break out in condos, home-owners' associations and co-ops all the time. It's
part of the inevitable tension that occurs when people who live cheek by jowl
have to share expenses and abide by shared rules. But in parts of fast-growing
Florida, officials say fights between boards and unit owners have been
condo ombudsman office, created in 2004, says it's currently fielding about
700 complaints and requests for help each week. The office conducted
elections last year. It has already been asked to conduct that many this year.
The state office that oversees condos, the Department of Business and
Professional Regulation, says its number of formal complaints are staying
steady. In the past two fiscal years, it received about 1,800 complaints a
major reason for the strife is the growth in condo living. The state has about
1.2 million condo units, up about 135,000 units from October 2003.
states are also addressing the issue. Nevada has had an ombudsman for several
years, and lawmakers in California and Arizona are proposing similar
young people and baby boomers are moving into condos once dominated by
retirees. The new residents are challenging the old boards, asking questions
about expenses and bristling at the rules.
demographics are going from an older crowd to a younger crowd," says
Julio Robaina, a Florida lawmaker who proposed the legislation that created
the ombudsman's office. "The older retirees didn't want to shake the
Robaina says. "Young professionals are appalled by the condo boards.
see people who have no idea what they are doing."
Osborn, a 33-year-old financial planner, objected to the layers of
"middlemen" who were being paid to hire contractors to provide
services like a concierge in his Hallandale Beach condo building. He decided
to run for the board about a year ago and was elected president, he says.
recent spate of hurricanes in Florida is bringing the tensions to a boil, as
condo boards ask residents to pay for costly storm repairs.
Raphans, retired caterers from Queens, N.Y., first waded into Florida's condo
disputes as volunteers. About a year ago, they went to work for Florida's
first condo ombudsman, Virgil Rizzo, a retired doctor and a lawyer.
small staff occupies a one-room office in Fort Lauderdale, adorned with a
picture of a stuffed gorilla in red boxing gloves -- a symbol, the staff says,
of the fight for fairness in Florida's condos.
Raphans were partly inspired by scrapes with their own condo board in Fort
Lauderdale. Mr. Raphan says he often raised objections to the board's
reluctance to increase maintenance fees to pay for certain repairs. The
conflict came to a head when Mr. Raphan says a former board member told him he
was banned from the pool area after he attempted to sit in on a private
meeting there. Sometimes, Mr. Raphan says, condo boards can "lose track
of the scope of their authority."
Raphan is now the assistant condo ombudsman, earning about $25,000 a year, not
including benefits. Recently, he accompanied a group of unit owners as they
went to inspect financial documents held by the management office. At the end
of the meeting, he asked the sides to simply stop fighting. "They don't
need any more lawsuits,'' he says. "They need us to come in there and
say, guys, this is not the playground, stop throwing mud."
two sides shook hands at the end of the meeting -- a big step for them, he
condo resident called Mr. Raphan to say the board president and board
secretary were having a romantic relationship. "I explained that is not
something we can get involved in," Mr. Raphan says.
the time the ombudsman's office was asked to send monitors to the Parker Plaza
election, a battle was raging. The building was still reeling after the board
proposed a $14.3 million assessment for new windows without much public input.
election day, a group of residents set up a collection box for ballots in the
lobby, but some board members objected and wanted to watch over the box.
one of the election monitors working with the Raphans showed up around 6:30
p.m. with the ballots sent to the ombudsman's office in a large gray suitcase.
roughly 400 ballots made their way to the community room where the Raphans
worked with three election monitors to verify the ballots. They collected the
last ballot at around 7 p.m. and began counting. Residents huddled around,
waiting for the results. At one point, Mr. Raphan had to ask the crowd to back
was nearly midnight when the monitors finished the vote tally. It was a rout.
Every incumbent lost -- some by margins of five to one. A woman pushed her
walker over to Robert Fisher -- a 55-year-old architect, who was elected board
president -- and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
Raphans quietly collected the ballots and turned them over to the new board,
which must keep them for a year in case the election is disputed. A condo
owner addressed the crowd and thanked the ombudsman's office for the help. The
were able to facilitate the will of the people,'' Mr. Raphan says.