Common sense to shape reign of condo czar


Article Courtesy of the Palm Beach Post

By Frank Cerabino

Posted 12-08-2004


Condo renegades take heart.


A kindred spirit will soon be on the loose in Florida.

His name is Virgil Rizzo. He's been a doctor and a lawyer, and this week, Gov. Jeb Bush made him Florida's first-ever condominium ombudsman.

The idea of a statewide condo czar was born over widespread grumbling by condo owners that dispute resolution with their boards is slow, costly, and ultimately unfair because of a disparity in resources.

Rizzo, 67, knows a thing or two about condo disputes because he has been representing himself in a lawsuit against his own River Reach condo in Fort Lauderdale.

And now, as the state's condo ombudsman, he'll be immersing himself in the condo complaints of others.

"When you have infighting with your neighbors, it leads to stress and turmoil," he said. "And you have to ask, not only 'Who's right?' but 'Does it really matter?'

"The issues are usually minor," he said. "Some people wake up in the morning with nothing to do. Their neighbor says, 'Do you know what so-and-so is doing?' And the next thing you know, they're fighting with everybody."

Rizzo's own condo battle caught the attention of Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami, who was sponsoring the legislation that would ultimately create the nation's first statewide condominium ombudsman.

Goal: Talk to people, not lawyers

The position is within the Division of Florida Land Sales, Condominiums, and Mobile Homes of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. But Rizzo, who will have a $4 million annual budget and his own 15-member staff, plans to run an autonomous operation zipping around the state to personally try to resolve condo disputes before they become full-fledged legal wars.

The way condo dispute mediation is now handled, both sides are represented by lawyers, and the loser pays the legal fees. This is unfair, particularly to the lone unit owner who must roll the dice against the resources and legal expertise of his or her condo association, Rizzo said.

Rizzo's solution is to take the lawyers out of the process.

"I want to hear from the people themselves, not their mouthpieces," he said. "People just get upset, and usually it's nothing they can't resolve if they just stop swearing at each other and talk."

Rizzo said the more prudent course, in many condo disputes, is not to let a few arbitrary condo rules get in the way of a good common-sense solution.

"The board has the authority to allow people to break the rules," he said.

Rizzo said nobody has a right to be a nuisance to his or her neighbors, but he thinks condo boards do a disservice when they go after rule breakers who aren't bothering anyone.

"You have to live with each other," he said.

Tackle problems quickly

Rizzo said he's not interested in running an office that simply compiles complaints. He wants to resolve problems quickly, and one of the biggest problems, he said, is condo elections. The law that creates his position also provides for condos to ask for election monitors.

"People who want to run against the incumbents in a condo often find themselves denigrated," he said. "I'm going to have to find election monitors,"

But first, he needs a satellite office in South Florida. And a staff. And to get set up next week in Tallahassee as this new, learn-as-you-go adventure begins.

"I'm getting a lot of calls from people who want to help," he said.