Bush signs bills curbing condo boards

Article Courtesy of the Sun Sentinel

By Joe Kollin
Published June 25, 2004


Beginning Oct. 1, homeowners and condo owners will have greater protection from abusive boards.

In the first major reform in a decade, Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday signed two bills that would create the job of ombudsman to hear condo complaints and ban homeowner associations from foreclosing if owners don't pay fines.

Homeowners will have the right to fly flags in front of their homes and associations won't be able to sue members for speaking out.

Condo boards will not be able to change rules on rentals for existing owners. Homeowners and their associations will face mandatory mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution to prevent them from battling in expensive lawsuits.

"It's a major step toward adding consumer protection," said William Sklar of West Palm Beach, co-chairman of the homeowner association task force and a law professor at the University of Miami. "Homeowners don't have to live in fear of losing their homes for breaking a rule."

The new rules apply to every owner in every homeowner or condo association with mandatory membership. In South Florida, that translates to more than half the population, experts say.

For condo owners, the ombudsman is considered the sweetest victory, said Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami, chairman of the House Select Committee on Condominium Association Governance.

The 14-member staff of the ombudsman will be able to monitor elections, recommend enforcement action and investigate condo financial dealings. It would only act after six unit owners, or 15 percent of the association members, sign a complaint against their board.

"This will not cost condo owners one more single cent," said Robaina.

The ombudsman will be paid for with the $4 a year that every condo association pays the state for every unit.

For Karen Gottlieb of Dania Beach, the biggest victory was the one protecting a homeowner's right to speak freely.

Gottlieb has spent $39,212 so far fighting a $1 million slander suit brought against her by her association.

"To be a victim, then to be part of the cure, gives me hope that when things go wrong they can be made right," said Gottlieb, who was appointed to the homeowners' task force by Bush. "Every day there are more victims."

Robaina said he and Sen. Rudy Garcia, R-Miami, plan to begin a review next month of both the condo and homeowner laws so they can propose additional changes for next year's legislative session. He said his hopes are high for more reforms at that time.

Reformers weren't sure if Bush would sign the bills because many of his supporters opposed it.

"Instead of diluting the laws, the governor put the whole thing on the table so we can look at it for next year," Robaina said.

Robaina said he hopes to have the ombudsman apply to homeowner associations as well as condos, have the tougher condo laws also apply to homeowner associations, and make it possible to discipline lawyers who knowingly give bad advice to associations.

Jan Bergemann, whose grass-roots Cyber Citizens for Justice led the fight for change, plans to hire a professional lobbyist next year to battle for the rights of unit owners.

"More reforms are necessary to protect the welfare of owners in mandated properties and to finally create the harmony that Gov. Bush was talking about when creating the [homeowner association] task force," he said.

This year, however, was satisfying. "We got our foot in the door," he said.