Majority of Florida condo board quit in 2019 as squabbling residents dragged out plans for repairs - The Washington Post

The president of the board of the Florida condominium that collapsed last week resigned in 2019, partly in frustration over what she saw as the sluggish response to an engineer’s report that identified major structural damage the previous year.

Anette Goldstein was among five members of the seven-member board to resign in two weeks that fall, according to minutes from an Oct. 3 meeting, at a time when the condo association in Surfside was consumed by contentious debate about the multimillion-dollar repairs.

“We work for months to go in one direction and at the very last minute objections are raised that should have been discussed and resolved right in the beginning,” Goldstein wrote in a September 2019 resignation letter. “This pattern has repeated itself over and over, ego battles, undermining the roles of fellow board members, circulation of gossip and mistruths. I am not presenting a very pretty picture of the functioning of our board and many before us, but it describes a board that works very hard but cannot for the reasons above accomplish the goals we set out to accomplish.”

Story continues below advertisement

Debate over the cost and scope of the work, along with turnover on the volunteer board, dragged out preparations for the repairs for three years, according to previously unpublished correspondence, condo board minutes and other records kept by the homeowners association.

Concrete restoration work had not yet begun when the building partially collapsed June 24. Identifying the cause of the catastrophe is expected to take many months, and it is not clear whether the problems identified in 2018 played a role. At least 18 people were killed in the catastrophe, and 145 remain missing.

Despite increasingly dire warnings from the board, many condo owners balked at paying for the extensive improvements, which ballooned in price from about $9 million to more than $15 million over the past three years as the building continued to deteriorate, records show.

Story continues below advertisement

“The question is, ‘Why did it take three years to get this point?’ ” Max Friedman, a former board member who left the board before the 2018 report, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It took a lot of time to get the ball rolling, and of course there was sticker shock. Nobody truly believed the building was in imminent danger.”

Goldstein and the other board members who resigned did not return messages seeking comment. The precise reasons for the resignations of the other four members are not clear in the documents examined by The Post. Goldstein and some of the others later returned to the board, one just three weeks after stepping down, documents indicate.

Efforts to reach virtually everyone who has served on the board since 2018 were unsuccessful; at least two of those members have been reported missing.

Story continues below advertisement

A spokesperson for the condo association, Max Marcucci, declined to comment for this article.

Miami-Dade County requires buildings to be inspected and recertified as safe after 40 years. Real estate lawyers say the process often stretches out beyond that time. The condominium building, Champlain Towers South, was constructed in 1981.

The engineer, Frank P. Morabito, found “major structural damage” to a concrete slab below the pool deck, caused by a flaw that limited water drainage, according to the 2018 review that outlined the repairs needed for the 40-year recertification.

A resident told The Post that minutes before Champlain Towers South came down, she noticed that a section of the pool deck and a street-level parking area had collapsed into the parking garage below. Experts have said the collapse appeared to involve a failure at the lowest levels of the building or in the parking garage beneath it.

Story continues below advertisement

By the time of the collapse, the board had rallied additional support for the repairs, some residents said. The building had 136 units and a diverse population of retired snowbirds, Northeastern transplants, Orthodox Jews and Latin Americans.

The board unanimously voted in favor of a $15 million special assessment to pay for the upgrades to the building on April 13.

As recently as April, residents appeared divided over the repairs — with dozens signing a letter that questioned the details of the proposed spending and asked the board to consider a lower assessment. “We cannot afford an assessment that doubles the amount of the maintenance dues currently being paid,” the group wrote.

Story continues below advertisement

In a 2018 email to other town officials, Ross Prieto, then a Surfside building official, praised the condo board for getting a jump-start on the 40-year review. “This particular building is not due to begin their forty year until 2021 but they have decided to start the process early which I wholeheartedly endorse and wish that this trend would catch on with other properties,” Prieto wrote in the Nov. 15 email.

But what may have looked to Prieto like a running start soon became a slow walk.

“A lot of this work could have been done or planned for in years gone by. But this is where we are now,” current board president Joan Wodnicki told condo owners in a letter on April 9, 2021, which warned damage to the structure's concrete support system was accelerating.

Story continues below advertisement

In a follow-up note the next day, before a meeting about the $15 million in repair costs, Wodnicki wrote: “As we approach next Tuesday's meeting on the Special Assessment, I ask everyone to try to remain calm. I know there is a lot of anxiety and there are many questions. It’s a lot of information and a lot of money. We will continue to do our best to address everyone’s concerns.”

Her warnings to homeowners about the urgent need for repairs had gone on for months. “I want you to know that the numbers we are hearing so far are much higher than the original Morabito estimate,” she wrote on Oct. 23, 2020. “However, the project is also much larger . . . The concrete damage is more extensive than it was when first looked at in 2018, and prices have gone up.”

She added: “I wish I could be giving easier news, but the reality is that we live in an aging oceanfront building that needs work. Our Maintenance will probably be going up, and the renovation will be very expensive. Within those boundaries, we can work on prioritizing, getting the lowest prices, getting the best loan terms, and other ways of containing costs. But our home needs attention, and this is not a surprise. We have known for several years now that this was coming.”

Story continues below advertisement

Wodnicki did not respond to requests for comment from The Post.

The board held meetings on Zoom throughout much of 2020 and 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some were attended only by a handful of people outside of the board, records show. Highly technical explanations of the building’s maintenance needs and a complicated breakdown of the costs are available on an internal website.

The pandemic appeared to exacerbate tensions in the building. A March 2020 note to homeowners said the board had adopted a new rule: “No Owner, resident or guest may be verbally or physically abusive or otherwise engage in conduct that is offensive, threatening or harassing to any other Owner, resident or guest.”

Story continues below advertisement

Condo owner Adalberto Aguero told The Post that he and his wife were not aware of the 2018 inspection report when they purchased their one-bedroom unit in mid-2019 — a process that involved an interview with a board member. They did not attend condo board meetings but were aware of the resignation of one board president.

“There was a lot of fighting and bickering,” said Aguero. From the correspondence the couple received, he said, “you get the feeling that things were not right.”

Earlier this year, the couple received an assessment for $80,000 over more than a decade for their share of the pending repairs — a price Aguero said seemed steep. “I thought it was a very high amount of money,” he said. But they had renovated their place and loved the condo. “We had no choice. What were we going to do?”

Aguero and his wife were not home at the time of the collapse.

In the spring of 2019, before the slew of resignations, a letter sent to condo owners on behalf of the board sought to dampen brewing opposition.

“This will be a challenging time for all of us at Champlain Tower South,” it said. “Our building has been neglected for some time and we have to begin preparing for our upcoming Recertification. The board is working very hard to find ways to meet the desperate needs of the building. It would be irresponsible to continue to ignore these needs.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Follow @wpinvestigates on Twitter | Like Investigations on Facebook

Latest investigative news

Sign up for updates on our new investigative podcast

https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/majority-of-florida-condo-board-quit-in-2019-as-squabbling-residents-dragged-out-plans-for-repairs/2021/06/30/43592282-d98e-11eb-ae62-2d07d7df83bd_story.html