Courtesy of The Osceola News-Gazette
October 11, 2015
The efforts of two local state legislators to help
the residents of Poinciana have more transparent access to voting for
its Association of Poinciana Villages Master Board representatives got
no support last week from fellow Osceola County Legislative Delegation
A local bill was drafted by state Rep. John Cortes, D-Kissimmee, and
supported by Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, that would have extended
voting hours for board elections, allowed for voting by mail or proxy
and outlawed at large members. It was presented at the delegation’s
annual public meeting Oct. 2.
But a needed third vote didn’t come from the rest of the delegation:
state Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, state Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk
City, and Sen. Kelli Stargell, R-Lakeland.
Among their concerns were that the bill, with language specific to the
23,000 homeowners of Poinciana, would affect homeowners associations
across the county. They also questioned whether parts of the bill would
be found unconstitutional and would have the Poinciana villages in Polk
County living under a different set of rules as those in Osceola County.
Soto lamented that the local bill didn’t pass.
“This was drafted for two reasons: to protect the property rights of
owners, and maintain their voting rights,” he said at the public
meeting. “I will always side with property owners over the powers that
be. People didn’t feel like they have a way to elect who they want to
the Master Board. This bill addresses all that.”
Cortes, who said he’s spent the past couple of months dealing directly
with Poinciana residents and much less with APV officials who won’t call
him back, wrote the bill in search of bringing Poinciana HOA elections
in line with the transparent nature that elections for public officials
are held under.
“This is about legitimacy, about those who govern gaining their office
fairly,” he said. “To lose the voters’ trust is to case a shadow of
Residents, and a pair of lawyers speaking on their behalf, gave evidence
that during elections, AV Homes (formerly known as Avatar) has cast as
many as 1,500 votes before the polls close.
“Of the 35 village seats, 25 are controlled by the developer,” attorney
Steven Sepulveres said. “Even though 97 percent of parcels have been
sold to private residents, AV Homes is pledging votes of things they
perceive they own, and they’ve never been challenged.”
Fellow attorney Chris Wright said residents feel “beaten down” because
it is apparent that, “AV always wins.
“If they feel like it’s more fair, more residents will exercise their
right to vote,” he said. “This bill would help all residents of Osceola
County with increased access to HOA voting systems.”
AV Vice President of Land Development Tony Iorio is the Master Board
representative for Village 4, which has no homes on any lots. He is also
listed as a member of seven of the nine village boards on records
obtained by the News-Gazette. Messages left for him at his office and
with the APV public relations staff were not returned at press time
Felix Gratopp, whose address is listed as a Fort Myers law firm, is on
the board of five of the villages.
Mark Maldonado, who has served as the general manager of FirstService
Residential — the management company brought on to service APV about
three years ago — said the HOA is in the process of improving its
communication in the community.
“We’ve instituted village meetings, but with over 70,000 residents, it’s
a work in progress,” he said.
When asked if he would be open to extending voting by five hours to 7
a.m. to 7 p.m., he was non-committal.
One of the provisions of the bill — to have the Osceola County
Supervisor of Elections’ office verify election totals for a fee — was
removed during delegation discussion.
But it was not enough to get the vote of La Rosa, who brought up the
topic of the bill being found unconstitutional.
“Why use our time and resources on a law that can’t stand?” he asked. “I
don’t want to support sloppy legislation coming out of this delegation.
“We have a sizeable problem in Poinciana with what’s going on with the
HOA. I want to address it but not waste my time and energy on something
that won’t help the residents down the line.”
Combee said he could give more support to a bill that only addressed
HOAs over a certain size.
Cortes, who also said he plans to take a statewide HOA bill to
Tallahassee when the 2016 legislative session begins in January, also
lamented the local bill’s lack of support.
“You people have been suffering with Avatar for 15 years, so I’m sad,”
Earlier this year, prior APV Master Board President Peter Jolly
questioned the spending and actions of FSR. When he could not get a copy
of a requested audit, he moved $1.4 million to a non-FSR controlled
account and removed computers from the APV offices in August. The Master
Board followed by voting to remove him from the executive position, and
a Polk County court demanded Jolly reverse his actions two weeks later.
The APV board has been in a tumultuous state ever since, prompting
Cortes to pen the local bill, he said.