In fierce condo wars, he's the peacekeeper

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

Published December 24, 2006

FORT LAUDERDALE - Now that the snowbirds are back, anxiety is coursing through the veins of Florida's 1.3-million condo residents.

Bill Raphan gets to hear it all.

Last year, the state's top condo peacekeeper and his wife, Susan, received 15,000 phone calls and 20,000 e-mails about secret meetings, conspiracy theories, power grabs.

"The word is 'overwhelming' for what we have to do here every day, keeping track of 20,000 condos," said Raphan, of the state Condominium Ombudsman's Office.

Condo life in Florida has always been fraught with aggravation, but rising insurance costs, soaring property taxes and the psychological threat of hurricanes have everyone more frazzled than ever. People are so frustrated and confrontational, Raphan said, that condo associations have been hiring off-duty police officers to keep their meetings in order.

"I literally don't have time to go to the bathroom," he said.

* * *

It's just before noon on a recent Wednesday and Raphan, 58, is pacing in the middle of his Fort Lauderdale office, cell phone pressed tightly on his ear.

His thinning brown hair is cropped closely. He wears a light brown jacket, a blue checkered shirt and leather shoes without socks.

"I always wear a jacket," he said. "But it's Florida. The only place you see jackets is at funerals."

This is his 20th call to a Jacksonville condominium where the former president is preventing the new president from taking over. The old president won't give up the condo documents or the check signing powers. He has unilaterally declared the election invalid.

The new president has called in tears. Now, Raphan is going over her options.

"Until or unless something changes, you are the duly elected board," Raphan said. "What did I tell you the first time you called here? Now we've done two or three weeks on this."

Neither Raphan nor the Condominium Ombudsman's Office has legal authority over this downward spiral, but Raphan can give advice.

The office was created in 2004 to deal with the growing wave of condo complaints, providing quick answers instead of lengthy investigations. It has a $560,000 budget and nine employees, seven of them in Fort Lauderdale.

Raphan makes $30,000 a year for listening to what's on people's minds. The Long Island caterer and his wife retired to a Fort Lauderdale-area condo in 1994 - a retirement that lasted a decade.

After getting mired in an uproar at his condo, Raphan started volunteering for the first condo ombudsman, Virgil Rizzo, and soon drafted his wife into the office. They became full-time employees - and, for a while, the only employees other than Rizzo.

Last summer, Rizzo was fired in a dispute about the authority of his office. He was replaced by Danille Carroll, a Tallahassee lawyer. Raphan's title is assistant ombudsman or office manager for the Fort Lauderdale branch, where the majority of the employees are based.

Ninety-five percent of the calls to the Ombudsman's Office come from South Florida - where the bulk of the state's condos are located - but on any given day the staff deals with issues from across the state:

A Sarasota condo was having all its meetings in Canada. Another in Clearwater didn't trust its board to count ballots. A unit owner from Miami was being denied access to financial records.

Raphan has his hands full.

Many callers think they're the victim of scheming condo boards or corrupt management companies, but Raphan's not buying it. He thinks people just don't know the laws.

"If it was a perfect world, every board would have a lawyer, an accountant and a maintenance engineer," he said. But people who get elected often can't balance a checkbook. "We go to associations a few times a week. The people are clueless. We say, 'Why did you run for election? Don't you know there are laws?' They say, 'We thought you just do what you want.' "

* * *

In a mustard-colored community room beneath a 20-story Miami condo, dozens of residents were milling around one Thursday night, many of them with ballots in hand.

They could have put the envelopes in the ballot box a week ago, but they were worried someone would tamper with them.

When Raphan and his wife arrived to monitor the election, voters pressed the ballots into their hands. Raphan knew that was a bad sign.

Then the woman holding the key to the ballot box started in on him.

Where did he come from? How could she trust him? What made him think he could mess with her condominium's election?

For all the clamor over higher insurance rates and huge increases in association fees, the most contentious duty for Raphan and his wife is dealing with elections.

Condo board elections concentrate all the venom of small-town politics into a single building. Raphan will send an election monitor any time 15 percent of the condo owners petition for help.

At this 300-unit Miami condo, the counting began about 5 p.m. and didn't wrap up until 8 p.m. One hundred and fifty envelopes were checked against voter rolls and then double-checked. Ten of the ballots were discarded for technical violations.

Raphan picked six volunteers from the audience to help count votes and a few minutes later, the residents wanted him to remove one of the helpers because she had Alzheimer's.

The assembled crowd gossiped and politicked and snacked. A man in a four-wheel scooter hit the counting table in an abortive U-turn as an elderly man stuffed potato chips into a Styrofoam cup hidden in his pocket.

Meanwhile, the board members and their challengers pretended not to see each other.

Through it all, Raphan, his wife and another election monitor, took their time, occasionally clenching their jaws.

"You can be sure," Raphan said during a break, "they didn't do anything like this last year."

* * *

Not everyone appreciates the Ombudsman's Office or, for that matter, Bill Raphan.

At one Miami condo, the board of directors asked Raphan to come out and explain to the membership what would happen if they didn't pay their special assessments to fix a failing roof.

Before Raphan had a chance to talk, the crowd of 150 started chanting: "No more assessments! No more assessments!" A man snatched the microphone from Raphan and said he knew a painter who could fix the roof for $100,000 less. Another resident said he would never pay the assessment.

Raphan took the microphone back and explained that if they didn't pay, the condo association could foreclose on their units.

"They didn't understand," Raphan remembers. "They thought I was saying the state was going to take their property."

Suddenly, a man rushed toward Raphan.

"You take my unit, I'll kill you right now," the man said, revealing a gun in his pocket.

A stack of papers flew through the air and hit Susan Raphan.

The couple left under a security escort.