Courtesy of the Miami Herald
Florida's new condominium ombudsman has had a live office
phone for a few weeks, but he has already fielded hundreds of calls -- many on
his newly issued state cell-phone.
Expectations are high for Virgil Rizzo, a 67-year-old
retired doctor and lawyer from Fort Lauderdale who is charged with mediating
disputes between condominium owners and the associations that operate their
His main goal: rid the state of the kind of ''condo
commando'' battles made famous in TV sitcoms like Seinfeld. He's also
charged with helping people resolve disputes before they file complaints with
the state or head to court.
But with almost no budget and little more than an e-mail
account, a desk and a phone in an office in Tallahassee, Rizzo is struggling to
manage the volume of complaints coming his way. It is a little overwhelming,
said Rizzo, who confesses to being about a day behind on returning calls and
''It just looks bad for the Legislature, and the governor
and actually, the position of ombudsman,'' Rizzo said.
Some condominium activists fear he is being set up for
''It concerns me that Gov. Bush has selected him and
hasn't really given him a budget,'' said Stephen Comley, who pressed lawmakers
for three years to create the ombudsman job. ``Certainly, Dr. Rizzo has got to
have the authority to do the job.''
Lawmakers created the position last year to help ordinary
people in disputes with the condominium leaders or the state boards that oversee
condominium sales and operation. But they didn't set aside any money in their
budget; neither did Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed Rizzo.
The job now falls under the umbrella of the Department of
Business and Professional Regulation's Division of Land Sales, Condominiums and
Mobile Homes. The agency, known as DBPR, scrounged up about $65,000 for Rizzo's
salary, Rizzo learned Thursday.
They also have agreed to assign an administrative aide to
the office, spokeswoman Meg Shannon said. But until someone puts some money in a
budget, that's all Rizzo will have.
''That's the most we can really do at this point,''
Rizzo said he hopes to have someone in Tallahassee to take
calls and track complaints.
He will work in Tallahassee when he must but prefers to
establish a satellite office in South Florida. Most of the complaints originate
from Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, Rizzo said.
In his short time on the job, he already has monitored a
condominium board election in Daytona Beach and has handled emergency calls
about how to handle condo boards that want to violate open meeting laws.
He prefers that people e-mail their complaints; then, he
can address them at his convenience -- which sometimes means at 2 a.m. His
office voice mail holds 35 messages at a time, a limitation sure to frustrate
callers who can't leave messages.
To save time, he has learned to cut through long, involved
accounts of inter-condo spats with one simple phrase: ''Tell me what it is you
want me to do about it,'' a question he says gets people to focus on how to
solve their problems.
Rizzo's office will function much as an advice line, by
giving people tools to resolve disputes, and by encouraging people to meet and
come to an agreement on differences.
But some of Rizzo's detractors say they don't see him as
the right person for the job because he has a long-simmering condo dispute of
his own, at his riverfront condominium complex in Southwest Fort Lauderdale,
For the past two years, he and other longtime residents
have traded lawsuits that originated with a case Rizzo filed against the condo's
board of directors. Rizzo, who is handling the legal work, alleges the board
mishandled condominium investments; his detractors countered with a libel suit.
More than 15 people showed up to meet with a reporter in
the community center at River Reach to outline their own grievances against
Rizzo. They describe him as such a ''disruptive'' neighbor, because of his own
dispute, that he is unfit to lead the state's condo mediation efforts.
Several of Rizzo's neighbors have written to Bush to
protest his pick.
''It strikes me that someone who has created such
disruption, confusion and distrust in his own condominium . . . should not be
allowed to do the same at other condominiums,'' said Neal Ketcher, a retired
airline pilot who has lived in River Reach for 33 years.
``The question is, how this appointment came to pass. What
was the vetting process? Who recommended him?''
The job is not a political appointment. But Rizzo -- who
says he has no political affiliations or aspirations -- does have some friends
in the right places, including Democratic state Sen. Walter ''Skip'' Campbell,
his former boss. Campbell hired Rizzo, a former doctor, right out of law school
to analyze medical malpractice cases for his law firm.
Campbell, along with Republican state Rep. Julio Robaina
of Miami, sponsored the legislation that created the ombudsman job. Campbell has
also unofficially accompanied Rizzo to Tallahassee to introduce him to state
As long as his budget problems get straightened out, Rizzo
is the right guy for the job, Campbell said.
''He's very tenacious. He has the ability to do the job,
the ambition and the attitude,'' Campbell said.
``But it's a question whether the Legislature is going to
give him the tools to do his job.''