New ombudsman has his fans -- and critics

Virgil Rizzo gets high marks for helping owners, but some complain he is exceeding his authority and isn't fair to some boards.

Article Courtesy of the Miami Herald

By
Posted on Sun, Jun. 19, 2005

 

Francois de La Begassiere wanted someone neutral to monitor his Fort Lauderdale condominium's recent elections. Someone to defuse any tension while making sure the election was fair.

 

Fortunately, he says, he and other condo owners finally have that someone: The state's new condominium ombudsman, Virgil Rizzo, a retired doctor and lawyer and himself a condo owner in Fort Lauderdale.

 

''He was great -- everything was very fair and above-board,'' says de La Begassiere, who beat an incumbent for the open seat on his condo board.

 

Only months into his job, Rizzo, 67, is drawing praise for turning the new office into a place where condo owners can go for help -- and get results. But he is also drawing criticism from members of the Community Association Leader Lobby (CALL), a nonprofit advocacy group. Some members fear he may favor condo-owner complainers.

 

Rizzo is scheduled to appear at a public meeting before the Advisory Council on Condominiums Saturday morning at the Miami International Airport Hotel.

''There are people who think he is doing a great job,'' says council president Joseph E. Adams, a shareholder for Becker & Poliakoff, one of the state's leading community association law firms. Others, Adams says, think there are ''issues that need to be looked at.''

Ultimately, Adams says, the final judge is Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed Rizzo. ''He serves at the governor's pleasure,'' Adams says.

PIONEER: 

Virgil Rizzo is the first to fill the state job.

In an interview, Rizzo says he is impartial and, indeed, he stressed that most condo boards are good and working in the best interests of their communities. But sometimes, he says he does encounter uncooperative boards, condo attorneys or management companies.

3,500 CALLS

In the first three months, Rizzo, who receives $65,000 a year, says his office fielded more than 3,500 calls. Often he returned calls at night or on weekends.

''I was a doctor and when there was an emergency, you didn't wait for office hours,'' he says.

He resolved 75 percent of inquiries within 24 hours, he estimates. There are still a few unresolved cases, mainly because condo boards or their attorneys and management companies won't cooperate, he says.

''He is solving a lot of problems. I have heard great things about what he has done,'' says Karen Gottlieb, a Broward homeowner activist appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to serve on the seven-member Advisory Council on Condominiums that was set up to listen to people's concerns and evaluate what changes should be done.

''The word needs to get out that Florida's unit owners now have someone who will return their phone calls and reply to e-mails promptly, regarding their very pressing issues,'' adds condo owner Gail Sharpe of Kendall.

''Dr. Rizzo even tries to get the condo association to do the right thing, and quickly too,'' she adds.

But CALL executive director Donna D. Berger, who is also a Becker & Poliakoff shareholder, says some of her group's members have complained that Rizzo was ''threatening'' to condo board members or employees while pursuing a caller's inquiry. Others have questioned his legal opinions, with one lawyer complaining that Rizzo had not read his community's bylaws before declaring the association was holding an improper election. Rizzo says the matter is still pending before a state agency.

Berger adds that members also think that Rizzo may be going beyond his authority when, for example, he recently recommended that a ''unit owner may not serve on the board as a director for more than two terms, nor longer than four years.'' He also wanted to limit officers to one term. She says that state law allows Rizzo to recommend changes to rules and procedures of a state agency that oversees condo associations -- but not to 'substantively affect owners' rights.''

She adds that condo associations have a hard time finding owners willing to serve on condo boards but Rizzo believes there are plenty of interested people.

Her group still supports the ombudsman's position -- she says CALL helped write the law that set up the office. ''Only time will tell if Rizzo is the right person for the job,'' Berger says.

The nonprofit Cyber Citizens for Justice, a statewide grass roots consumer group, says Rizzo is doing a tough job -- seeing that condo laws are enforced and owners protected from potentially abusive condo boards, attorneys or management companies.

''He's somebody they can't control. He is independent,'' says the group's president, Jan Bergemann.

Condo owner de La Begassiere says Rizzo needs support: The state needs to punish those condo boards illegally refusing to open records to owners or even holding rigged elections to keep themselves in power.

Condo owners find ''the whole process . . . ineffective,'' agrees Fred Fejes, the new president of his 16-unit Victoria Park condo.

Owners at his complex voted to recall the former board under the new law that requires a majority to agree to kick out board members. But the board refused to accept the recall notice, saying it hadn't been given to the proper people.

A COMPROMISE

Rizzo, however, helped forge a compromise: He monitored an election that ultimately ushered in a new board.

''It turned out really well,'' Fejes says. Rizzo was able to maintain calm and no one blew up at the election results.

''It's over -- people accept what happened,'' Fejes says.

Before he became ombudsman, Rizzo says 'there was no accountability for [board] directors.''

He adds the best thing a condo board of directors can do is hire competent experts -- from management companies to attorneys -- to help them smoothly run their association.

''Their duties are to operate a corporation,'' he says. ''I can't stress that enough -- you really are supposed to run a corporation.''


----------------------IF YOU GO-----------------------------------------------------------------

The state's Advisory Council on Condominiums, a volunteer seven-member board set up to listen to concerns about condo laws, is coming to Miami-Dade to hear what South Florida has to say.
The meeting will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Miami International Airport Hotel in the airport's Concourse E, at Northwest 20th Street and LeJeune Road.
Condominium Ombudsman Virgil Rizzo, who helps resolve disputes between unit owners and their boards, is scheduled to speak.
As part of his duties, Rizzo also monitors elections and helps unit owners understand their rights and responsibilities.
The ombudsman can be reached at 850-922-7671 or ombudsman@dbpr.state.fl.us
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