Courtesy of The Miami Herald
September 17, 2007
Gov. Charlie Crist has proposed eliminating the popular
Condo Ombudsman's Office, a budget cut that is drawing strong opposition from
condo dwellers, consumer advocates and state leaders in Crist's own Republican
Less than three years after state legislators agreed to
set up the nine-member agency, Crist is now saying in his proposed budget that
the office is not needed because it ''provides very similar services'' to the
Department of Business and Professional Regulation does.
''Essentially, it's duplicative,'' says Anthony DeLuise,
a spokesman for the governor.
Supporters of the ombudsman's office promise a fight.
They say the office, which costs the state $423,426 a year, is an essential
neutral spot for condo owners and boards to get information and settle
The grass-roots consumer group, Cyber Citizens for
Justice, has e-mailed the governor, protesting the proposed cut.
The group's founder, Jan Bergemann, notes that the
office isn't paid for from the general fund, but from $4 a year each Florida
condo owner pays into a trust fund. The fund pays for that office and DBPR
agencies that help condo owners.
ACTS AS MEDIATOR
The ombudsman's office holds classes about condo law,
answers questions, monitors elections and acts as a mediator between boards
and angry owners.
Condo ombudsman Danille Carroll, an attorney, said her
office fields about 20,000 calls a year. ''We try to get back within 24
hours,'' she says, adding "People need a neutral resource.''
State Rep. Julio Robaina, R-South Miami, who led the
effort to create the ombudsman's office, predicts that once people know about
the proposed cut, the outcry will "generate so many e-mails that the
governor's head will spin.''
The condo ombudsman's office was set up in early 2005.
''There was really no place to turn to,'' says condo
owner Eddie Hernandez, who complained for years to DBPR about financial
wrongdoing at his Grand Vista condominium in Hialeah Gardens, with board
members accused of using condo funds for their own personal use.
''After 25 complaints and three years, our condo
association was fined $50,000,'' by DBPR, he says. "That meant everyone
had to pay. That was punishing those who reported the wrongdoing.''
Ultimately, the owners recalled the board and voted in
new directors, including Hernandez. He said the new board negotiated with the
state to eliminate the fine -- and has since consulted the condo ombudsman's
office when questions come up.
''You definitely need a middle man,'' he says.
Last year, the ombudsman's office monitored an election
at Parker Plaza Estates in Hallandale Beach after some owners became concerned
that board members kept getting re-elected despite wide opposition.
The oversight led to the election of a new board -- and
the eventual arrests of the former board president, property manager and two
others in a million-dollar kickback scheme.
Even former foes of the ombudsman's office have been won
''Initially we had reservations that it would duplicate
services,'' says attorney Donna D. Berger, who is now executive director of
the Community Advocacy Network (CAN).
She and other attorneys sparred with former ombudsman
Virgil Rizzo, who was fired last year by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
But, Berger says now, the current ombudsman is
"serving a useful purpose.''
seems to be -- at least the perception is -- that it is a more friendly
resource,'' Berger adds.
OPEN LETTER TO GOVERNOR