Gov. Bush's task force push for state agency
to help Florida homeowners
Article Courtesy of the Sun Sentinel
Published January 26, 2004
BY Patty Pensa 

Gov. Jeb Bush's Homeowners' Association Task Force on Wednesday will review legislation giving homeowners greater access to association records, prevent foreclosures and require independent audits of an association's financial statements.

Absent from that list is what homeowner advocates consider most significant: a state regulatory agency that could decide cases and enforce its decisions at a minimal cost to homeowners.
"It's disappointing to me," said task force member Barbara Katz, a community leader who lives west of Boynton Beach. "An agency similar to the condo bureau could do a lot more."

What's commonly called the condo bureau is the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The agency manages how condominiums are created and operated, enforces state condo law and investigates complaints.

No such agency exists for homeowner-association communities, where more than 5 million Floridians live. Bush's task force discussed creating an agency for homeowners shortly after it first met in September.

But the idea was voted down 10-3 at the task force's Jan. 9 meeting. It won't come up at the task force's final meeting Wednesday.

"I don't feel it's necessary," said Julie Baker, task force co-chairwoman and a deputy secretary with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. "Regulation is not needed now."

Task force member Jan Bergemann said that without a state agency, any legislation the task force presents won't help homeowners because there will be no one with enforcement power.

"No one is there to regulate or supervise if dues are embezzled," said Bergemann, president of the advocacy group Cyber Citizens for Justice. "The ideas they came up with are making the attorneys richer."

Bergemann takes issue with the Alternative Dispute Resolution provision approved 11-2 at the Jan. 9 meeting. This recommendation would use trained mediators around the state to resolve disputes. It would cost a homeowner $200, compared with the $50 condo owners pay for a state arbitrator to decide their case.

But HOA mediators aren't arbitrators, and unless the case concerns a community's recall of board members or an election dispute, a mediator's decision wouldn't be binding.

Homeowners could end up spending thousands in court if mediation fails, Katz said.

Task force co-chairman William Sklar said mediators are a good start. Creating a new government agency would be too costly, said Sklar, a West Palm Beach attorney and a University of Miami professor of community and condo association law. "Many of us don't believe that everything could be resolved through an agency," Sklar said. "The condo bureau has not done away with or replaced ever-increasing litigation."

Sklar said he is satisfied with the task force's work in the past four months. Most significant is a recommendation to prevent associations from foreclosing on a homeowner's house after that homeowner has been fined for violating the association's rules, he said.

Other recommendations include disclosure to potential homebuyers of pending litigation against the HOA to potential homebuyers and a requirement of competitive bidding for contracted work.

At Wednesday's meeting, the task force will discuss eliminating lawsuits against homeowners who simply express negative opinions or concerns at HOA meetings, which are commonly called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Task force member Karen Gottlieb, a Dania Beach homeowner, suggested the issue.

Though Gottlieb is content with some of the task force's work, she said she is frustrated that the task force didn't support a new state agency for homeowner associations.

The task force will submit its recommendations to Bush and the legislature in February. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation would pursue legislation on their recommendations.

Meanwhile, Bergemann said he is working with South and Central Florida legislators to push legislation for a state agency for homeowners.

"I don't see it as a total failure," Katz said. "But it's not over even when the report is sent in. We have to see if they actually do write these laws."