Lauderdale man is condo go-to guy


Article Courtesy of the Miami Herald


Posted 12- 08 - 2004


A retired Fort Lauderdale man has been named the state's first condominium ombudsman and he may be the first such ombudsman in the nation.

Gov. Jeb Bush has appointed a retired Fort Lauderdale doctor and lawyer as the state's first condominium ombudsman.

Virgil Rizzo, 67, now must establish the office, which was created by the state Legislature during its last regular session.

Rizzo has been involved in condo association issues at the grassroots level for years.

''Mr. Rizzo is a fabulous choice,'' said Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami, the legislator who sponsored the bill creating the ombudsman. `He's had personal problems with condominiums, which makes him sensitive to the problems of individual owners.''

Rizzo has been involved in ongoing litigation between owners and the board of directors at River Reach Condominiums in Fort Lauderdale, where he lives.

As an attorney, he represents some 500 plaintiffs -- including himself -- who sued the board alleging it caused condo owners to lose $220,000 in association fees that were deposited in the Hamilton Bank, which collapsed in 2002.

Rizzo said Tuesday he no longer will handle the lawsuit, as he is forbidden from private practice while serving in his new post.

His new job will be to mediate disputes between condo associations and individual unit owners. He will be neutral, not an advocate, he said.

''I'm not here to represent one side or the other,'' Rizzo said.

``I've seen both sides of the issue and have seen what the problem is: a lack of knowledge, on both sides, about the operation of a condominium.''

The new ombudsman will have a budget of $4 million, which comes from a yearly fee condo owners pay. The $4-a-year fee that owners pay to their associations has been in place for several years now. Some of the money has been deposited in a trust fund.

Rizzo plans to have an office of 15 employees organized into three departments.

One would field complaints from the public for possible mediation.

Another would educate and inform individual owners and boards about their rights and powers.

A third would identify problems currently not covered by Florida law to make recommendations to the Legislature.

''I'm not sure what the exact procedures will be,'' Rizzo said Tuesday. ``Keep in mind we are creating something that did not exist and that is unprecedented in the country.''

Only Nevada has something similar, but its ombudsman only handles homeowners association issues.

But the Legislature may have relied on anecdotal evidence rather than hard data when they drafted the new condo bill, said attorney Donna Berger of the Community Association Leadership Lobby, a statewide group that represents more than 4,000 condo and homeowners associations. It opposed the ombudsman idea.

''At this point we want to move forward,'' Berger said. ``But we wish the Legislature would concentrate its energy on where it is needed most.''