From the squabbles at City Hall between the newly-elected mayor and his maverick city manager, to neighbors waging war against Donald Trump’s latest construction project; the community of Doral Isles is no exception to the growing pains of a young municipality.
Accusations of festering projects, clandestine meetings, unapproved transfers of monies and an intentional silencing of resident’s concerns have motivated a group of homeowners to launch a movement: “For a Better Doral Isles.” They hope to oust longtime Doral Isles Board of Directors Chair Maria Alvarez and some fellow board members perceived as cronies to bring in new leadership.
“We don’t have Board meetings anymore,” said nine-year resident and economist Felipe Pedrosa. “When I was treasurer of the Board in 2003, we had regularly-scheduled monthly meetings, but the law says ‘best practice,’ so they get away with it. We used to have a lively sharing of opinions as part of the democratic process. Now we have Board of Directors making decisions by email.”
The 430-acre lakeside residential development was established in 1997. In this sprawling lush wonderland of tropical landscaping set among 13 connecting property islands or isles with names like Martinique, Antigua and Antilles, the average home cost is about $1.5 million. The state-of-the-art Island Club, pool, gym, cafes and meeting rooms are paradise’s center stage.
Alvarez was originally appointed to a Board vacancy in 2008, and the following year won re-election. She has been president for the past two years. Alvarez initially declined, then agreed to an interview with Community Newspapers. After speaking on some of the more controversial issues, she said she preferred to not officially comment for the story.
“A lack of regularly-scheduled meetings poorly announced” is just one of the problems, according to incensed neighbors. The outdoor poolside restaurant Patio Café renovations were completed more than a year ago to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars – money that was extracted from the approximately $8 million annual Board budget. The remodeled restaurant sits vacant by the pool.
Dominique Birba is a 12-year resident and engineer selected to serve on the tennis committee in January 2012. The approximately $300,000 investment proposal for courts began with six months of weekly scheduled meetings.
“After the last Board elections, we were told we were an ad hoc committee – that the architectural committee will now assume the project, and we were all dismissed,” said Birba.
Birba sees this as a trend of Alvarez’s leadership style. When Birba and fellow community activists formed a neighborhood crime watch to address a spike in robberies – 55 reported in most recent annual figures – she claims they were relegated as troublemakers and prevented from using country club meeting rooms to organize. The Doral Police chief and mayor celebrated the neighbors’ efforts to combat crime in an April 13 El Nuevo Herald story.
Graciela Rodriguez and her husband purchased their property three years ago, although her name is not officially on the deed. Although she says she was able to vote by proxy in the last several elections, she was recently denied admittance to a Board meeting.
“It was like they closed the door to me on my own house,” said Rodriguez. “What made me so indignant is that they took my votes in the past and now they wouldn’t let me sit in on a meeting. She (Alvarez) doesn’t let people speak who are not going to speak in favor of her. If we don’t agree, we are not allowed to speak.”
Residents like Ruben Vinasco have gone to such lengths as to send certified letters requesting official Board back-up materials. In response to recreational field access for youth inquiries, Vinasco received letters from Doral Isles Community Association General Manager Gary Fiegler.
Neighbors like Vinasco claim when they send such letters for information, they receive the same response stating in part: “there is no requirement under Florida law for the Association to provide a written response to inquiries from a homeowner under Chapter 720 of the Florida Statutes; the Association is only obligated to respond to a request where a homeowner requests an opportunity to inspect official records of the Association.” Residents complain the inspection release forms process is intimidating and complicated.
Since former Board member and now two-time president Alvarez has led the Board, residents like Saskia De Oliveira say the six committees that were in existence, including the Securities and Grievances Committee she helped form, have been disbanded and only two reincarnated committees remain active.
“This is about transparency, democracy and community,” said De Oliveira. “We are looking for more volunteers to join us and get involved. We simply want to work together to make things better for everybody.”
Alvarez and Fiegler chose to not go on record for this story.
Doral Isles Board attorney Michael Foelster of Sachs Sax Caplan, P.L., did go on record to say that more resources would be needed to respond to inquiries for detailed records from Board management.
“Anyone that has an interest in the budget and would be a member of the association has the right to the information,” Foelster said. “What’s been happening is you have quasi-tenant residents pounding the association for information to the point where the association has limited resources. They are sending us voluminous report requests that cost money to respond to and we have a fiduciary responsibility to our members.”
Foelster said the neighborhood crime watch was not supported because the group originally referred to themselves as “vigilantes.” “There are claims they are inappropriately targeting certain minorities. The Board made a business decision that it is not in the association’s best interests to sanction a group taking vigilante action. The HOA could be liable,” he said.
Foelster also said negotiations are underway for project managers at the Patio Café restaurant and for the tennis courts proposal.