Saddlebrook residents claim HOA board

withheld documents, rigged elections

                             

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Rebekah Monson,

Published July 14, 2011

 

Owners in the Saddlebrook community west of Boca Raton say they haven't seen financial documents or had a fair election in their homeowners association in five years.

Paul Preston has been fighting the Spanish Isles Property Owners Association board since 2006, alleging that the group repeatedly blocked owners' access to documents, rigged elections and violated state law.

 

Preston has submitted written requests to inspect the association's financial records four times in as many years but has yet to see the books, he said.
 

The struggle in Saddlebrook exposes the holes in Florida's HOA law and the consequences of inadequate enforcement, said Jan Bergemann, president of Cyber Citizens For Justice, Florida's largest statewide property owners advocacy group.

"The laws clearly say they have to show records to [owners], but how to do you enforce it?" he asked. "If you have to hide records, you have something to hide. And spending thousands of dollars on lawyers trying not to show records? That's ridiculous."

Spanish Isles POA board president Donna Don declined to comment, directing inquiries to the

Paul Preston accuses the Spanish Isles HOA of not sharing important documents
Paul Preston and a group of homeowners in Boca Raton's Spanish Isles are fighting their HOA, saying the current board has refused to share financial documents or hold fair elections since 2004.

 Watch VIDEO


association's attorney, Robert Kaye, who said the association is compliant with all laws. Other board members could not be reached for comment, despite attempts by phone.

"I'm not familiar with any situation where anyone has been denied access to the records," said Kaye, whose firm has represented the Spanish Isles POA since 2009. "[Board members] are regularly in contact with us, and we help them keep compliant at all times."

As recently as June 29, Preston mailed a request to inspect the financial records, along with a supporting petition signed by 78 homeowners in the 280-home development, but has received no response from the board, he said.

Florida law requires HOAs to allow members to inspect an association's records within 10 business days of receiving a written request.

"They can't produce the books," Preston said. "I want to know what they are hiding."

Homeowners under HOAs may find themselves at the mercy of a board that uses their dues to finance protracted legal battles that silence opposition, Bergemann said.

"It becomes a literal dictatorship in a country that is supposed to be the land of the free," he said. "You only have recourse if you can wake up a majority of the owners, which is really difficult, and if you can pay to fight the lawyers."

Preston, who was ousted as board president in 2006 in what he calls a "phony" recall, has filed multiple complaints over his recall and alleged rigged elections with the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation, which regulates HOAs.

But in each case, arbitrators have found in favor of the association because it hasn't broken any laws, he said.

Preston said the board has maintained power and kept other homeowners from being nominated for office by using a system of staggered terms, internal appointments and a nominating committee stacked with existing board members.

"It may be legal how they're doing it, but it's not fair," he said.

When it comes to elections, Bergemann said, members of HOAs are at a disadvantage to condominium owners because state HOA law is vague and a board can change rules without a vote from the community.

"Condo laws for elections are much more specific than HOAs," he said. "For many years, we were trying to convince the Legislature to use the election rules of condos, because they're more straightforward."

Don has held the presidency since 2006 and three other members have served on the nine-member board continually since 2007, according to annual reports filed with the state and the community's website.

"The elections have been not at all fair," said Dan McHardy, who resigned as board president in 2005 after serving for just a few days. "They discourage people who do not agree with them, and then they can't get on the ballot."

McHardy said most neighbors don't have the time or money to pursue protracted battles with the board.

"The neighborhood is disappointed with the way these people are conducting our business," he said. "A lot of the neighbors are frustrated, and nobody really wants to get involved, because they see that Mr. Preston and the association have been in conflict for a long time."

Another ousted board member, Patti Ross, called the board's actions "shady," but said she no longer can afford to fight them.

"They told everyone I resigned, but I never resigned," she said. "I am concerned about the financials because they're charging people all kind of crazy money for stuff. I think they're using it for legal fees."

Ross said the board currently is suing her for $19,000 to remove graffiti that her 12-year-old son painted behind the community's entrance sign.

Preston said the board has been levying fines without giving owners a chance to go before a fining committee, which is mandated by state law.

"There isn't a fining committee. They haven't held a meeting all year," he said. "But people keep getting fined and [are] paying because they don't want to cause trouble."

Preston said he'll continue to fight until the Spanish Isles board overturns his recall, produces the financials, holds fair elections and follows the rules.

"My hope is that whoever comes after these people leave if they ever leave is someone who will conduct business the way it's supposed to be conducted," McHardy said.

 

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