Bitter power struggle on South Beach may be coming to an end
With its board of directors embroiled in a bitter power struggle since July, when a dissident faction attempted to oust the organization's president, the South Beach Property Owners Association hopes to move past the controversy by electing a new leadership team on April 21.
The election of a new board will come less than a month after four directors – Thomas Browne, George Bryant, John J. Burns and Frank Spitzmiller – resigned in the wake of being named in a lawsuit filed in March by association President George Lamborn.
None of the four is seeking election to the 2016-17 board, according to association Treasurer Carter Taylor, who will join Lamborn and at least five others on the ballot: current secretary Miles Conway, Bill Liedholm, Cheryl Gerstner, Carol Buffum and Jose Lambiet.
Taylor said the SBPOA's Nominations Committee was still seeking candidates – particularly from Castaway Cove's Wave 1 or 2 and The Moorings – to add to the ballot before the election. However, if none could be found, he said the board could function with seven members "while we continue to recruit" others interested in serving as directors.
"We can't hold up the annual meeting indefinitely," Taylor said.
The SBPOA usually conducts its Annual General Meeting in March, but the dispute and lawsuit caused it to be postponed. At the board's March 28 special call meeting, directors voted unanimously to re-schedule the meeting for April.
Four days later, Lamborn released a statement announcing that he had accepted the resignations of Browne, Bryant, Burns and Spitzmiller – the core of the dissident faction – "on the grounds their conduct was not compatible with serving the best interests of the constituents of the South Beach."
Lamborn wrote that he and the remaining directors were "committed to ensuring the welfare and quality of life in the South Beach is protected, not the welfare and election interests of Indian River County politicians."
The special call meeting was the board's first gathering since Lamborn filed his suit March 11 in Indian River County's circuit court, where he alleged the four board members who resigned – as well as four others he claimed were illegitimately nominated and elected last year – were collaborating with a "public official" to illegally seize control of the SBPOA.
The other four defendants were Steve Merselis, David De Wahl, Victor Cooper and Robert DeWaters. Lamborn challenged their legitimacy as board members because he claims their SBPOA dues weren't paid in full at the time of their nomination and election in March 2015.
Lamborn also released a statement two days after filing his suit and accused the defendants of wanting to "silence the SBPOA with respect to certain issues of concern to South Beach property owners, deliver the SBPOA into the hands of a re-election campaign and turn the SBPOA into a political lap dog."
Though Lamborn did not name him in the lawsuit, the "public official" reportedly is county commissioner Bob Solari, whose district includes the South Beach area.
Solari denied the allegation. The commissioner said he never attempted to undermine the SBPOA's president and has had "nothing to do with" the polarizing dispute over control of the board.
Solari said his actions regarding the county's short-term rental controversy have "everything to do with" his name being dragged into the squabble.
Burns, who said he has served as the SBPOA's president seven times, corroborated Solari's claim that the commissioner had not been involved in the SBPOA power struggle, which dates back to last summer.
Until the recent resignations, the board had nine members, but Carter said the SBPOA's bylaws allow for up to 15 directors.
The four board members who resigned represented the: Windward Condominium Association of Vero Beach (Browne); Moorings of Vero Property Owners Association (Bryant); Sandpointe Property Owners Association (Burns); and Seagrove Property Owners Association (Fitzmiller).
Lamborn wrote that members of those groups remain in "good standing" with the SBPOA and, as such, were entitled to submit to the Nominations Committee the names of one of their respective members for consideration to fill the vacancies on the board.
Earlier, Burns said "nearly 80 percent" of the SBPOA's membership is represented by three of the defendants named in the lawsuit and that, if the dispute can't be resolved without going to court, some factions are "prepared to withdraw from the association."
Such a defection would almost certainly destroy the SBPOA, which was founded in 1992. However, Taylor said none of the associations has expressed any interest in leaving the SBPOA.
Solari said he is "being blamed" by some members of the SBPOA for the county's inability to prohibit short-term rentals in the wake of a 2011 state law that made them legal.
The statute permitted counties and municipalities with existing bans on vacation rentals to grandfather in their ordinances, as was the case with the city of Vero Beach.
Solari, however, argued the county's ordinance was too vague to withstand a court challenge and the commission eventually repealed it. "Some people don't understand my position," he said. "It was a badly written ordinance."
The commission's decision opened the gates for short-term rentals, which some have complained are the equivalent of hotels operating in residential neighborhoods.
In response, the county has adopted ordinances prohibiting short-term rentals from being used for big events, such as weddings and reunions, and severely restricting guest parking.
"The new ordinances removed 80 to 90 percent of the problem, and we're looking at other regulations," Solari said. "But there are some people who won't be satisfied until short-term rentals are banned."