By Greg Ellison
(Sept. 12, 2019) The possibility of a legal battle over the Ocean Pines Association Board of Directors’ rejection of a petition seeking to reduce its unapproved spending authority to $1 million has increased, with opponents to the board’s denial obtaining counsel of their own.
Former Board member Slobodan Trendic introduced two petition drives during the homeowners Annual Meeting on Aug. 10 — to limit the board’s spending authority and to force a referendum vote for a Golf Course Club House project.
Trendic, who resigned his board post after abstaining from a vote in April to approve building an expanded club house and cart barn, subsequently formed the advocacy group, START (Strategic planning, Transparency, Accountability, Respect and Trust).
Despite the petitions as submitted containing 880 and 810 signatures respectively, with the required 10 percent of association members eligible to vote earlier estimated at 845, OPA attorney Jeremy Tucker said the language in the first did not meet association governing guidelines, while the second failed to reach qualification thresholds.
Regardless of how the 10 percent mandate is calculated, with ongoing debate over the precise number of Association members qualified to vote, Trendic said the community sentiment is undeniable.
“The fact that 880 members signed the petition, I think, speaks volumes,” he said.
During the board meeting on Aug. 31, Trendic said OPA Vice President Steve Tuttle responded to the spending limit petition by introducing a motion to reduce spending authority from the current 20 percent of annual assessments to 12 percent, which would establish roughly the same dollar mark for capital expenditures to trigger a referendum requiring a majority vote of members.
“It’s important to note even Steve Tuttle, who is a current director, has tried to respond to my petition in an indirect way by submitting his own motion,” he said. “The fact that the board rejected his motion 6-1 says they’re just not interested at this point to entertain changing the budget spending authority.”
Former Board member Marty Clarke, who is START treasurer, said the specific expenditure details is of less concern than the appearance of rejecting resident’s sentiments.
“As far as I’m concerned, this has nothing to do with the spending limit,” he said. “The spending limit is just what the petition of referendum was to address. It’s the petition of referendum that I’m having a problem with.”
Stretching back 15 years, Clarke said this is the third time the board of directors has rejected petition drives.
“In 2005ish, the board was wanting to build a big marina at the Swim and Racquet Club,” he said. “They were seven-zip, they wanted that thing bad, but the neighbors didn’t.”
Helping to champion resident’s concerns, Clarke said despite gathering about 1,600 members signatures, the petition for referendum was stymied.
“That’s staggering,” he said.
Clarke said board members at that time “absolutely ignored,” the effort and without state officials intervening by refusing to issue permits without a referendum approval, “we’d be looking at that new marina today.”
“The minute they knew that they had to do a referendum, they just tabled it,” he said.
Just a few years later board members tried to break ground on a new community center at the Sports Core Complex, which was initially approved by a referendum vote, Clarke said.
“It barely passed the initial referendum for $3.5 million,” he said.
Before the ink was dry on project blueprints, the proposal was already nearly $2 million over budget, Clarke said.
“So we said, [an additional] ‘$1.8 million requires a referendum,’ and they said, ‘stick it in your ear.’”
Clarke said a subsequent petition submitted with 890 signatures was invalidated after the board eliminated sufficient numbers to reduce the tally to just below the required amount.
“What they did, and I’ll say this with no fear of contradiction or liability, they cheated it,” he said.
After pursuing legal action against the board, Clarke said he faced a countersuit.
“They, in turn, sued me personally,” he said.
Clarke said the subsequent showdown in
ended with a stop-work order being issued for a referendum vote to be held.
“The board had to have that referendum, which passed 70 to 30 opposed to the new community center,” he said.
Participating in both campaigns earned Clarke the support of many residents who helped bolster his first election to the board a short time later.
“Again, we weren’t saying we don’t need a community center, we were saying the bylaws say if 10 percent of the membership requests a referendum, you’ve got to do it,” he said. “It’s not a matter of whether you want to do it … you’ve got to do it.”
Shifting to brewing legal battles, Clarke said he advised Trendic to obtain legal counsel when he founded START to begin the petition drives this spring.
“He didn’t have the money … I get that,” he said.
Although willing to sign the petition, Clarke said he initially hesitated to become involved.
Reviving their earlier discussion after the petition was invalidate, Clarke said he reiterated his advice to Trendic.
“He came to me now and said, ‘what do we do,’ and I said, ‘I’ll give you the same advice I gave you four months ago, get an attorney,’” he said. “I helped him obtain counsel.”
From his purview, Trendic said the larger issue now is protecting the means for membership to influence how the association is managed, through both elections and petition.
Trendic said if majority sentiment sides with reducing board spending authority, that is what should transpire.
“The fact that my petition at this point is being declared as not meeting the requirements, and the fact that the board voted down Steve Tuttle’s motion 6-1, … is really not a reflection about how the community feels,” he said.
Trendic said the window for the Board to respond to petitions is 60 days from submission, or in this instance roughly Oct. 9.
“Maybe the board will reconsider … their formal stance on this and … it’s going to be different from the way things are looking,” he said. “The Board … ultimately is the deciding body [and] they have a right to reject legal opinion.”
Clarke said his involvement is because of concern for the community, not a personal agenda.
“I’m hoping that we can get this thing settled quick,” he said. “If we go to court, we’re going to need to raise about $12,000.”
Despite the potential legal bills, Trendic said resolving the issues at hand would help to establish clear legal precedent.
“We need to ensure that we … preserve the ability as a member to take action when we feel it is needed,” he said. “We should not put a price tag on that.”