Upcoming session brings reform issues

Article Courtesy of The Forum Publishing Group

By Chris Guanche

Published October 25, 2007


Condo advocates will be pressing for reform when the Florida Legislature convenes its next regular session in 2008.

One of the top priorities for condo reform is public access to records, said Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami. A bill by Robaina would include provisions requiring that a condo's official records be made available in the county where the condo is located. Current law requires condos to report their finances, but boards are able to opt out of an audit. The result, Robaina said, is that boards continually opt out of the requirement each year. The new bill would prohibit condos from opting out for more than two years.

Financial records tie in to Robaina's condo fraud reporting program, which was launched earlier this year as a pilot program in Miami-Dade County. Under the program, condo owners can report potential fraud to local police departments, which investigate the claims in conjunction with the state condo ombudsman's office. Having financial records makes investigating potential fraud that much easier, Robaina said.

"If not, these local law enforcement agencies will have to start doing [audits] themselves, and that gets expensive," Robaina said. "This is a needed tool."

Robaina said he hopes to expand the fraud program to the entire state by the end of the year.

Other reforms would allow owners to add items to an association meeting's agenda with a petition of 20 percent of the owners. Board elections would be modeled after elections for local officials. Boards would also be required to keep public records for five years, and failure to do so would be criminalized, most likely as a misdemeanor. All these reforms are designed to increase a board's transparency, Robaina said.

"We're want to make it transparent, whether they like it or not," he said.

In addition to transparency, condo owners need additional protections, said Jan Bergemann, president of Cyber Citizens for Justice, an Internet-based group that deals with condo issues. One such reform involves curbing SLAPP lawsuits, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. In a SLAPP lawsuit, an organization will attempt to silence opposition by saddling them with a costly legal defense.

"Too many people are being sued just for opening their mouths," Bergemann said.

Bergemann also said he had several other reforms in mind, including a prohibition on two owners from the same unit serving on a board. In small condos with three member boards, a pair of owners from the same unit, generally spouses, can serve and constitute an instant majority, he said. Community association managers would also be targeted for reform. Under current law, an unlicensed manager can take the licensing exam and return to work, but Bergemann proposes that unlicensed managers be prohibited from seeking a license for at least two years.

Pets have also been a source of conflict in many condos, but legislation backed by the nonprofit Citizens for Pets in Condos would allow owners to have emotional support animals. The legislation is supported by Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs and Sen. Jim King, according to Maida Genser, the group's president.