‘Nobody delivered.’ Lawmakers shamelessly failed to help condo owners after Surfside | Editorial

·6 min read
askowronski@miamiherald.com

The announcement in the Surfside condo-collapse litigation this month came as a surprise: Less than a year after the June 24 tragedy that killed 98 people and shook condo residents across the state, relatives of the victims and survivors had reached a settlement that will pay them nearly $1 billion.

The settlement is far from perfect, like the $83 million wrongful-death settlement that came before it. There are still agonizing decisions to be made about how much money the individual plaintiffs, including family members of those who died, will receive, knowing that no amount of money can compensate for the loss of loved and cherished people. But the speed at which this settlement was reached — offering some measure relief for those affected — is remarkable.

It’s that speed and determination that should jolt the conscience of every Florida legislator — and the governor — who have yet to do anything to make condo dwellers safer after the collapse. With almost a year to do the work and with full control of the House, Senate and governor’s office, Florida’s Republican lawmakers still have failed to pass a single piece of state legislation addressing the catastrophe.

It is an abdication of their most basic responsibilities. We see no evidence that anything meaningful is being pushed forward even now, as we close in on the one-year mark.

Abject failure

We know lawmakers tried to pass condo reforms during the regular spring legislative session. We have heard the explanations of how they couldn’t reach a compromise, despite working feverishly right up to the final hours of the session. But any legislator who wants to talk about how hard it is to reach consensus on legislation on condo inspections or requiring condo boards to fully fund reserves for repairs should think for a moment about what the courts have accomplished with this settlement on issues that are far more emotionally fraught. And they should realize that they have no excuse.

Imagine the nightmarish job of apportioning financial responsibility for a 136-unit oceanfront building that fell down in the middle of the night, killing scores of people who thought they were safe in their beds. The suit included more than 20 entities — the Champlain Towers South security company, the developers of the condominium next door, engineers, architects, a law firm representing the condo association. Most people expected the agonizing process to take years — a torment for those left behind.

And yet the judge in the case pushed hard from the start to reach an agreement by the time a year had passed. Lawyers for the various parties worked hard to recover $1 billion. Both goals were considered highly unlikely — until the announcement.

The difference between the courts and the Legislature when it comes to Surfside? Determination. Will.

As Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Michael Hanzman said in a Miami Herald story: “When this case first came in this court, I told everyone this wouldn’t be business as usual. This was a tragedy of unspeakable proportions. If we didn’t have the right people handling this case, it would be a 10-year slog with tens of millions in attorneys’ fees.”

He called both the result and the speed of the settlement “beyond extraordinary.”

Humane outcome

Reaching a settlement in such a short period of time is more than commendable. It is humane. It is compassionate. It is the very least we can do to help those left behind. Each week without resolution meant more time that the families and survivors remained in agonizing limbo, unable to move on with their lives. If the lawyers and judge had even the slightest chance of reducing the agony of a drawn-out process, they had to try. And, despite expectations to the contrary, they succeeded.

That brings us back to the Florida Legislature and the governor.

This monstrous event happened in their state. They have the power to take action to prevent others from going through anything as horrible as this ever again. We know that the House and Senate both had proposals in the works. But nothing was passed. In the end, that’s all that matters if you’re going to bed at night wondering if your condo is safe.

Miami-Dade County has passed some reforms. But statewide, there are about 1.5 million condos in Florida, with more than half in buildings over 30 years old. Their residents deserve to be secure. This cannot wait until 2023.

It is stunning that it takes victims such as Pablo Rodriguez, whose mother, Elena Blasser, and grandmother, Elena Chavez, did not survive the collapse, to call lawmakers and the governor to task.

“It’s still raw, I still wake up in the middle of the night with the video of the collapse on my mind, and Mother’s Day was sad,” he told the Herald. “And it is very disheartening that the Florida Legislature did nothing about reforms on condo safety. Everybody promised, nobody delivered.”

These elected leaders should be mortified. Are they? Not as far as we can tell. Neither the House nor Senate leader on the Surfside legislation during the regular session responded to our questions. If you’re keeping score — and you should be — they are Sen. Jennifer Bradley, a Republican from Fleming Island, just south of Jacksonville, and Rep Daniel Perez. He’s a Republican and slated to become House speaker in 2024. And he is from Miami. This happened in his back yard. Both are up for reelection in November. Perez is, so far, running unopposed in District 116. Bradley has a Democratic opponent in North Florida’s District 6.

Fit for office?

Usually lawmakers rush to pass legislation after disasters, if for no other reason than it tends to make voters think they are doing their jobs, especially in an election year. But this Legislature? This governor?

The Legislature had no trouble passing legislation to punish Disney for being “too woke” for Florida or making sure kids aren’t exposed in school to the idea that racism exists. That was all driven by Gov. Ron DeSantis. But when it came to working to secure the safety of millions of condo residents in his state after a tragedy that drew international horror, well, they just couldn’t get across the finish line.

If helping pass meaningful legislation after a catastrophe like Surfside isn’t their job, what is? This is not some remote issue, far away. This happened right here. It killed our friends and neighbors. It killed children and retirees. It ripped a hole in our community. To do nothing, in our opinion, is to disqualify yourself from elected office.

So here’s what we recommend. In the coming election season, ask the legislators in your district if they did anything, anything at all, to stop another Champlain Towers South disaster. If they didn’t — and we see no signs so far that they will — perhaps they aren’t fit for office.

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