Ex-Miamian takes over as condo ombudsman

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

Published June 18, 2006

Growing up just south of Kendall, Danille Carroll heard the condo horror stories. Now, as the state's newest condo ombudsman, it will be her job to deal with them.

Carroll, 39, a former attorney for the state Department of Health, is traveling the state, learning the issues. She acknowledges she has no experience in condo law, nor in running community associations. ''I'm going to get up to speed,'' she promises.

Already, she has met with several condo leaders. She says she knows hurricane-related matters will be foremost, including a 2004 law that the state is interpreting to hold associations responsible for replacing storm-broken windows and doors. Some association attorneys have disagreed, saying that the state law doesn't override condo documents that make individual owners responsible.

Carroll replaces the state's first ombudsman, Dr. Virgil Rizzo, who was fired by Gov. Jeb Bush this month after his frequent fights with condo association attorneys and the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR), the state agency charged with regulating condominiums and homeowner associations.

''The man is passionate and the man is committed to righting wrongs and I admired him for that,'' Bush said last week. "But there's a point in time in a government setting that you have to work within the rules of engagement and he wasn't doing it.''

Bush says he picked Carroll because DBPR Secretary Simone Marstiller recommended her as someone who could help broker agreements in the often heated condo disputes that routinely crop up throughout the state.

''It was believed by Secretary Marstiller that she would be a good talented person to bring all these warring factions together to try to reach consensus from time to time, which is part of the job,'' Bush said. "And I know she'll do a good job.''

''I can tell you that Danille came from a leadership position at the Department of Health and she is very competent, accomplished and qualified,'' adds Meg Shannon, a DBPR spokeswoman.

Like Rizzo, Carroll doesn't believe the state statute that created her job in 2004 requires her to answer to DBPR.

But she acknowledges that DBPR will help her act as a liaison between the state and condo boards and owners.

''They're here to help me perform my job,'' she says.

State Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami, who pushed for the law creating the ombudsman position, says he has been impressed that Carroll is seeing that business goes on as usual in the ombudsman's office.


''I will be there to work with her through the many wars she will encounter,'' Robaina adds. "What I really hope for is the office continues to function as it was set up and doesn't become another bureaucracy.''

Although condo activists worry she doesn't know the issues, Carroll so far has gotten praise across the board.

''I'm very excited abut her moving the office in a positive direction,'' says Donna D. Berger, a Becker & Poliakoff attorney who also is executive director of the Community Association Leadership Lobby, created by the law firm to represent Florida community associations.

Berger had complained that Rizzo was biased toward complaining condo owners and didn't understand how hard it is to keep volunteer board members. She believes Carroll will be more balanced.

Jan Bergemann, president of the community association activist group, Cyber Citizens for Justice, supported Rizzo, but says he is impressed with Carroll's friendliness and accessibility. She already has visited him at his home in DeLand.

But he worries that she doesn't realize what she has gotten into: increasing fierce fights between condo owners and their association attorneys and management companies. Some associations have even had to hire off-duty police officers to prevent fights during elections.

''I feel sorry for her,'' he says. "She can't win. She may be willing, but she has no idea what is going on with condominiums. She has never dealt with condominium law.''

Bergemann disapproves of her plans to continue living in her rental apartment in Tallahassee and travel to Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties where the majority of the state's condominiums are.

''In Tallahassee, you are about as far from the war zone as you can be,'' Bergemann says.

But Carroll says the law setting up the ombudsman's office requires her to be based in Tallahassee.

Rizzo, who owns a Fort Lauderdale condo, had worked primarily out of Broward, even setting up a small office there. Carroll says she will keep the Broward office and its staff.

When he started the ombudsman's office 18 months ago, Rizzo had to work long hours, trying to referee disputes between often angry condo owners and their boards.


Carroll says she is hoping to help calm such volatile situations. As an attorney, she says she has been in difficult positions before.

''I wouldn't have taken this position if I didn't think I could handle it,'' she adds.

Carroll was born in Maryland. While in grade school, she moved to South Miami-Dade when her father, a career Air Force master sergeant, was transferred to Homestead Air Force base.

When he retired from the Air Force, the family stayed. Her father worked for the U.S. Post Office. Her parents still live in South Dade.

Carroll graduated from Killian High School in 1984 and attended the south campus of Miami-Dade College. She later graduated from Florida International University.

Looking for a ''very good'' but affordable law school, she was able to snag a spot at the University of Texas in Austin. At the time, UT's law school was ranked ninth in the nation and boasted one of the country's lowest tuitions. She earned her law degree there.

Then she discovered she wasn't sure if she wanted to practice law. She came home and worked as a community development coordinator for an architectural engineering firm that was hired by the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department. Carroll then went on to become a medical malpractice attorney, work assignments for the Department of Environmental Protection and a lawyer for the state health department.

In her previous jobs, she says she has had to quickly learn issues and will do the same as the ombudsman.

So far, she says, ''education seems to be a big issue.'' She says condo owners need to learn about their rights and responsibilities. They need to read their bylaws and understand their complex's rules.

''I want people to be active members of their association,'' she adds.

She also wants her office to be a place where "we can help people resolve their issues quickly.''


She wants to be help clarify laws related to hurricane damage, such as who is responsible for replacing windows and doors broken in a storm. The DBPR, for example, has ruled that a 2004 state law makes condo boards responsible for replacing windows and doors broken in a storm, even if the condo documents say individual owners are responsible, agency spokeswoman Shannon says.

Carroll promises to be even-handed.

''It's very important for me to neutral,'' she says, adding, "I believe there is common ground -- and in finding it.''