Will condo czar expand powers?



Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald


Posted 02-20-2005


With no money to carry out his duties, and little power to investigate violations, the state's new condo ombudsman finds himself in a tight spot six weeks into the job.

The state's new condo ombudsman and the lawmaker who helped create the job are facing a daunting task.

Alone, with a $103,000 budget -- which pays little more than his $63,000-a-year salary -- Virgil Rizzo has been instructed by the Legislature to resolve hundreds of disputes between condo associations and unit owners throughout Florida.

Six weeks into his new job, the Fort Lauderdale doctor and attorney is overwhelmed.

And now, state Rep. Julio Robaina, R-South Miami, plans to try to expand Rizzo's responsibilities and power during the upcoming legislative session. He wants to give Rizzo subpoena power and authority over homeowners associations.

Robaina agrees that seems implausible, but argues it needs to be done to resolve associations' abuse of power and the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation's inability to curb it.

DBPR is the state agency that enforces compliance with state laws regulating the associations and controls the ombudsman budget.

''Our first battle will be to get him a decent budget,'' Robaina said during a town hall meeting Saturday in Plantation. ``We are encountering some resistance.''

About 400 people attended the session, some from as far away as St. Augustine and Tampa. They came to ask a panel of legislators, state officials and activists, to further regulate and limit the powers of the associations.

The complaints were as diverse as the crowd.

Beatrice Dozor of Tamarac complained of an unresponsive condominium board who would not open its records. Glenda Wilkerson of West Palm Beach said her condo board makes decisions in private and votes in secret. Julio Rodriguez of Pembroke Pines said his homeowners association charges illegal fees.

Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston, who moderated and organized the meeting, had to frequently tell people their time was up.

Rizzo seemed frustrated.

''I need money and personnel,'' he said, adding that he has been logging 250 phone calls a week and hundreds of emails. ``And after I found what the problem is, I need the power to investigate further and to put the handcuffs on the bad people.''

But it might take a while to get to that point.

For starters, Robaina estimated the ombudsman needs $700,000 to $900,000. That would cover two offices, one in Tallahassee and another in Broward, each of them staffed with an attorney and two assistants. But the DBPR estimate is much lower.

''They are trying to undermine him and keep him from doing the job the Legislature asked him to do,'' Robaina said of DBPR officials. ``They are afraid they are going to lose their power, but the fact of the matter is they have been highly inefficient. Dr. Rizzo has gotten more done in six weeks than what the entire agency has done in years.''

Efforts to reach DBPR officials on Saturday were unsuccessful.

Then, there's the issue of power. The condo law approved last year only gives the ombudsman the authority to mediate disputes between condo associations and unit owners, in an effort to avoid costly litigation. His authority does not cover homeowners associations.

Rizzo is also limited on how to investigate claims, as he does not have the ability to obtain documents that are not public records.

''He needs subpoena powers,'' Robaina said.

But Travis Moore, an attorney and lobbyist who represents associations, disagreed.

''We don't want this to turn into a harassment tool,'' Moore said. ``We're not opposed to the ombudsman, but there needs to be a balance.''

He cautioned against believing that all homeowner and condo associations are abusive -- or that the current laws do not need to be improved.

''Those are the extremes, and we are watching this issue because we don't want any of them running the show,'' he said.