State can help reduce conflicts in condominium life


Article Courtesy of the Daytona Beach News

Editorial By   -- COMMUNITY VOICES

Posted February 23, 2005

Daytona Beach and the surrounding areas are bursting at the seams with new condominiums and the prospect of many more to come. As a long-standing condominium owner, I feel compelled to alert prospective buyers, particularly those planning to live as permanent residents, about some of the pitfalls of ownership.

The concept of condominium living is not new but dates back to the Roman Empire in the sixth century B.C. The idea of joint ownership where everyone shares the expenses of common property sounds alluring, but the factions and in-fighting among independent-minded owners prove this to be a fallacy.

Some older condominiums occupied by local residents living there permanently, who knew one another before, appear to have the least conflicts. Other condominiums owned by others coming from all parts of the United States and the world, where about half of the units were bought mainly for rental purposes or as vacation homes, are prone to more conflicts and problems. There is great diversity of ideas and cultures but rarely a common bond of friendship.

Prospective owners can avoid most of these problems if they do their homework beforehand. The prospect of having those beautiful ocean and river views, along with all the amenities, sounds tantalizing. Buyers ask the usual questions about pets, children, taxes and maintenance fees but forget to check about their condominium rules and documents, including the bylaws, and state laws governing condominiums. And that is where the troubles begin.

Permanent condo residents get a rude awakening when they realize a few board members have the legal right, with few exceptions, to make the decisions affecting the condominium. While it is true that board members are elected by the owners, a number of these elections are at best a sham. Cliques can control the membership of the board and many other aspects of the condominium, particularly since most condominiums have no term limits. If fewer than the majority of members meet, the board may discuss and make recommendations among themselves which require merely a rubber-stamp approval at regular board meetings. The Florida Sunshine Law does not apply to condominiums.

Politics of the sort we see in local and national politics can become the norm, with no prospects of owners wishing to break into the ranks having a chance to become board members. The presence of a condominium manager who represents out-of-town owners for rental purposes can make things more complicated.

As a retired national registered parliamentarian, who gets consulted from other condominium owners, I have witnessed an appalling lack of knowledge about parliamentary procedures, stated in condominium bylaws, by board members and managers. Meetings, as a result, can become a mish-mash of disorder, chaos and conflicts. Failure to follow parliamentary procedures, with imposition of rules by board members, disenfranchises members and becomes a source of conflict.

In addition, there seems to be a lack of knowledge about proxy votes at annual membership meetings. A proxy at these meetings means the absent owner has assigned his vote to another individual who has the authority to vote for him. Since the state law requires a quorum at the annual meeting, the proxies may be used to establish one. However, most boards will not allow members to submit motions that would require a proxy vote, making the proxies worthless.

Another problem is the language written into condominium laws, which has become a source of varying legal interpretations. It is no wonder most condominiums hire in-house lawyers which could be avoided if the laws were written more clearly and unequivocally. Challenging some board decisions can be expensive for an owner to hire a lawyer, who then has to challenge the board's lawyer, paid for by all the owners, resulting in double expense.

If owners feel that the state agency responsible for condominiums can clear up questions and conflicts, that is another fallacy. This agency is unwilling to state legal opinions concerning the statutes written by lawyers, preferring to have issues resolved either through mediation or lawsuits.

With the potential increasing number of condominium owners all over Florida, particularly in the Volusia County area, and the abounding conflicts and problems, it is imperative for the governor and the state Legislature to rectify some of the common problems, which include more protection for the rights of owners; requirements of a basic course in parliamentary procedure for managers and board members; rewriting of the language in the state statutes so that the average layman can understand and use them; and a more responsive Bureau of Condominiums to move it away from its impotent state.

Just as important, owners must become active participants in their investments by educating themselves about the budget, reserves, insurance, maintenance fees and, most of all, the rules, regulations and laws governing condominiums. Condominium living, after all, should be a home of enjoyment, not a source of problems and conflicts.