Gov. Bush taps retired Fort Lauderdale doctor/lawyer as state's condo ombudsman


Article Courtesy of the Sun Sentinel

By Joe Kollin

Posted 12-07-2004


A retired Fort Lauderdale doctor and lawyer has been chosen to serve as the first condominium ombudsman in the nation, a position that will require him to educate more than 1 million condo owners and to resolve disputes with their 17,000 associations.

The appointment of Virgil R. Rizzo, 67, who is in the middle of a bitter lawsuit with his own condo association, was announced Monday by Gov. Jeb Bush.

The Florida Legislature created the position earlier this year over the objection of many condo lawyers and directors. Supporters of the law said they would try to add homeowner associations to the ombudsman's jurisdiction at the legislative session that begins in March.

"I think this will be a great opportunity for condo owners in Florida to finally have a voice and to have someone looking out for their issues," said Rep. Julio Robaina, the Miami Republican who led last year's drive to revise condo and homeowner laws.

Rizzo tentatively plans three departments in his Tallahassee-based office -- one to resolve disputes between boards and owners, another to educate and assist owners and directors, and a third to handle the reports he is required to make recommending new laws and procedures.

Under the new law, he can open branch offices throughout the state with the governor's approval. The only one so far he is sure he will establish will serve Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, which he said have more condos than anywhere else.

Rizzo said the ombudsman will equalize the ability of owners and boards to resolve disputes. Now, boards dip into association treasuries for money to pay attorneys to fight owners while owners fend for themselves, he said.

"There wasn't a level playing field, and that led to a great deal of dissatisfaction," he said.

Rather than have the formal arbitration hearings, he plans to have informal mediation hearings and probably won't allow attorneys on either side.

Although he expects to hire about 15 people, he knows little else about the position.

"All I know is what I can glean from the statute. I don't even know how much I'm getting paid," he said. "Everything is on the drawing board, because no other state has a condo ombudsman office. This is precedent-setting for us, which means I have to be careful structuring and organizing it."

The only state with a similar position is Nevada, where an ombudsman serves mandatory homeowner associations, not condominiums.

Rizzo, who retired from the practice of law in 1988, had a general medical practice in Plantation for 10 years in the 1970s. He will serve "at the pleasure of the governor" and will be a bureau chief within the Division of Florida Land Sales, Condominiums & Mobile Homes.

The office will be financed with money collected by each condo association, which must pay $4 per unit every year.

An owner at the 574-unit River Reach complex off Davie Boulevard and Southwest Ninth Avenue, Rizzo said he will retain an attorney rather than continue representing himself in the lawsuits between him and his board members.

In the suits, Rizzo accuses directors of negligently causing the condo association to lose $220,000 of owners' money. The directors accuse him of libel for negligently making the allegations. The suits are being heard in Broward Circuit Court.

Karen Gottlieb, of Dania Beach, a Bush appointee to the newly created Florida Advisory Council on Condominiums, praised Rizzo.

"He's been a victim, and he cares about people," she said.

Gary Poliakoff, whose statewide firm specializes in condo law, said while current law already contains "adequate safeguards" to protect owners from boards, Rizzo should "help ensure a balance between the rights of unit owners and the authority granted by statute to boards."