Lawsuit A Factor In Board Appointment


Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune


Published March 27 2008

CORY LAKE ISLES - Developer Gene Thomason had 60 days to turn over his company's financial records. As expected, he waited until an hour before the Tuesday afternoon deadline.

Attorney Mark Basurto predicted the last-minute compliance. He said Thomason's lawyers produced five boxes of documents dating to 2002.

Basurto represents eight Cory Lake homeowners who sued their property owners association for access to the records to see how Thomason has been spending homeowner assessments. He said the boxes appear to contain financial statements, ledgers, invoices and payments for the operations and maintenance of the upscale community.

The lawsuit played a key factor Tuesday morning when the Cory Lake Isles Community Development District board appointed Madeline BackesÍ to an open supervisor's seat.

Backes, a retired Boeing executive, holds a degree in finance. Board Supervisors Jane Taggart and Suzanne Manzi cited Backes' financial background as the deciding factor.

"She's the piece of the puzzle this board needs," Manzi said.

But homeowners in the audience, many of whom are financially backing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, saw the move as another power play by Thomason and his hand-picked board. They accused supervisors of keeping the seat open until they could persuade one of Thomason's friends to apply. Backes is recording secretary for the property owners association and her husband, Mel, serves on the board along with Taggart and supervisor Roger Brown. She applied for the CDD seat after the January deadline. A few audience members booed when she was sworn in.

The seat had been vacant since October, when Thomason's son, Cory, resigned. The board decided not to fill the seat at two subsequent meetings despite having four applicants who applied before the January deadline. Two of the applicants are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Another is a vocal critic of the board. The fourth applicant is a retiree who said he has a background in real estate.

The board interviewed three applicants in person and one, Dan Morford, on speakerphone. Manzi repeatedly questioned Morford about the lawsuit.

"Do you believe as a named plaintiff in a lawsuit with the POA that you are in any position to collaborate with the developer?" she asked.

Morford defended the decision to sue, saying it forced the board to be more responsive to residents and comply with open records laws.

"There is more openness, and that is partly a result of the homeowners pushing back," he said.

Applicant David Burman said Cory Lake residents are confused about the different responsibilities for the property owners association and the community development district board of supervisors because the same people control both. Brown, who serves on both boards, said it was a valid point, but he still voted for Backes.

Taggart said she hopes the other applicants will run for the three seats that come up for election in the fall.

Thomason, whose seat will be on the November ballot, has slowly relinquished control over some day-to-day operations in Cory Lake Isles. The development district will seek bids this year for a new landscaping contractor. On Tuesday, the board voted to hire Wackenhut Security to take over operations of the two gatehouses.

The Wackenhut contract will cost homeowners nearly $16,000 a month more than with Thomason's company, but it includes a roving patrol officer eight hours a day and a more sophisticated system. Guards will keep a computer record of visitors' driver's licenses, and cameras will photograph every vehicle entering and leaving the neighborhood.

The board will seek bids for security when the Wackenhut contract expires at the end of the fiscal year.