Condo Confidential / Ms. Management

Take gripes with your association to the Web

Courtesy of The Miami Herald
May 8, 2005



condoconf@aol.com

Indomitable humor is essential for owners in association environments. How else would one cope with the illogic sometimes encountered?

Jan Bergemann, cofounder and president of Cyber Citizens for Justice, has struck the right balance between persistent optimism and rational activism. His mantra, at least on the day I interviewed him, was: "United we stand, divided we fall.''

This democratic tenet is ironic because Bergemann has strong feelings about homeowners associations.

''These associations are a dictatorship within the United States of America,'' he said. "Their buying power is estimated at $50 billion nationwide through the assessments and monthly charges they collect and they are their own government accountable to nobody.''

Cyber Citizens for Justice (www.ccfj.net) was ''founded to unite Floridians in their quest to improve the daily lives of citizens in our state'' through advocacy, education and legislative reform. Annual membership is $20; funds are used toward website maintenance and to pay for a lobbyist. By far CCFJ's biggest expense is liability insurance to avoid what Bergemann refers to as "slap suits.''

The website offers 4,000 pages of information. ''Legislative alerts'' are sent to more than 5,000 people and cover a range of topics from citrus canker to a bill which allows liens and foreclosures due to association fines. Bergemann says that sort of bill is exactly why home and condo association members must be so vigilant.

''Condo association law, which are what the homeowner association laws are also based upon, were written by the industry to regulate the industry,'' he says. 'Can you imagine the auto industry representing car buyers? Never.

"It's a conflict of interest.''

For condo owners who find themselves at odds with their association, Bergemann offers simple advice: Don't independently get involved in a costly lawsuit; that's what the opposition wants. Instead, find like-minded people. Talk to your neighbors. As a team you can work a lot better.

He also advises owners to get informed.

Bergemann's wariness of associations is born of experience. When he retired, he purchased a home within a homeowners association in St. Augustine.

''The developer had very nice brochures with all the things we'd be enjoying including a clubhouse, a pool, a security guard, a playground with five acres of walking paths,'' he recalls.

The guard never turned up, the playground was planned on a retention pond site and the pool leaks profusely. After spending $25,000 fighting the developer in court, Bergemann and his 63 neighbors gave up. They decided to go to Tallahassee and change the laws instead.

''Our case was very straightforward,'' he says. "The developer distributed brochures with false advertising which is, according to Florida statutes, a third-degree felony.''

There is no happy ending to his story. The district attorney told Bergemann and his 63 neighbors there was no money to prosecute. ''We accepted a settlement, which was money paid from our association dues,'' he says. "We didn't want to, but we realize the association was using more and more of our money to fight us.''

Bergemann says retirees typically don't have money to fight for their rights, nor do they have the money to move. The contradiction, Bergemann says, is that while they receive no government protection, retirees are one of the largest sources of income for the state.

Though Bergemann continues to be a strident supporter for mandated property rights, he has bought a new home and will be moving in a few weeks. This one won't have a homeowners association. ''Do you think I'd be stupid twice?'' he asks.

Condo Confidential, an insider's look at condo life, is written by 'Ms. Management.' She can be reached at condoconf@aol.com


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