Condo peace is a tall order

The state's new condominium ombudsman is facing a daunting task,

with little money and no staff to help people resolve their disputes.


Article Courtesy of the Miami Herald


Posted 01-09-2005

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 buildings.

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 e-mails.

''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 failure.

''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,'' Shannon said.

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, River Reach.


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 politics.

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.''