Nearly 30 county and state office seekers showed up to woo voters last week when Montgomery County condominium owners held a candidates' night.
Most of the politicians used their few allotted minutes to assure the crowd of about 100 they would back legislation protecting condo owners.
The turn-out of candidates and condo dwellers was a graphic illustration of the political clout of this new breed of voter. An estimated 127,000 people live in 62,000 residential condomiums in Maryland.
With the number of residents in large high-rise condominiums exceeding the population of many small rural towns, condo owners are a potentially powerful group. And many in the Maryland suburbs of Washington are unhappy about the way their buildings are governed.
Condo owner Gaye Denis of Bethesda is disturbed by the "bad feeling between developers and owners" that exists in some buildings.
"The bottom line for [developers] is a short-term, money-making project. The bottom line for me is that I am buying a home," she said. "The other problem is that boards of directors . . . get power-crazy."
It is this "third generation" of legislation dealing with the mechanics of running associations, the powers of boards of directors, the use of proxies and other operating procedures that lawmakers are tackling. And specialists in the field say Maryland lawmakers are trailing those of their neighboring jurisdictions in establishing clear and comprehensive regulation.
An aide to Montgomery County Executive Charles Gilchrist acknowledged that state and county leaders "are still groping for a way to create an orderly form of government with the condos. One of the great problems is the joint ownership of common property."
Condominium boards of directors have the authority to set fees and decide how the money is to be spent. Residents "have different ideas about what the fees should be used for. . . . People have an infinite capacity to fight with each other over these kinds of things," said the aide.
Condo law expert Robert M. Diamond said "one of the major issues for the future" is devising ways for the condominium "minigovernments" to function efficently and to work smoothly with the local governments that surround them.
Amendments to Maryland condominium legislation were voted on by the General Assembly in 1981 "in great haste and without a lot of review," said Diamond. More legislation was passed in the 1982 session, resulting in a "patched-together" condominium act, he added.
The Maryland Association of Condominium Owners, organized in Montgomery County and still largely made up of county residents, has a long list of problems it wants the Maryland General Assembly to solve when it convenes next January. It would like to see legislation giving owners a greater voice in setting condo fees and in deciding how the money is spent, according to MACO founder and President Dorothy Sager of Rockville. The organization also wants guarantees that most meetings of condo boards of directors will be open and that board elections will be impartial.
The MACO would like to see a "state reconciliation board" to settle disputes and wants a curb on the number and voting power of nonresident investors who rent out their apartments.
Sager complains that "the greater number of nonowner tenants in a building, the higher your condominium fee and the lower the value of your home. Mortgage companies are reluctant to offer loans on a condo if there is more than 40 percent tenancy."
Sager, a retired teacher, said she and her husband "found ourselves in the unfortunate situation where our condominium fee increased 70 percent in three years and services decreased at an alarming rate." She blamed the large number of off-site owners and closed meetings of the board of directors.
Diamond disagrees, saying that absentee owners have as much at stake as resident owners, and as much interest in having a well-run building "because their money is being spent, too."
Condo owners in Virginia and the District of Columbia do not face many of the same governing problems because legislation in those jurisdictions is more detailed and more effective, he said. Condo owner groups in those two areas can solve conflicts with boards of directors by going to court or by "voting the rascals out."
"The trouble with associations such as the MACO is that, if they believe the board is not doing what it was told to do, they go to local governments instead of voting out the board," Diamond said.
The MACO ispinning its hopes on a 24-member state commission appointed in August by Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes to investigate condo problems, and on a Montgomery County task force, whose members are not yet named, which is to make an even-broader-based inquiry.
The governor's commission, headed by Sen. Jerome F. Connell (D-Anne Arundel), will include among its members Montgomery County residents, among them consumer affairs director Barbara Gregg, law professor Jason Newman, Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut (D-District 18) and Sager. They will "give the county a liberal voice on the commission," said the Gilchrist aide.
Preliminary findings of the state commission, made up of elected officials and private citizens, are expected to result in recommendations for a Maryland sunshine law for condos. The proposal could be considered by the state General Assembly when it convenes next January.
A state "sunshine" bill probably would be based on the Montgomery legislation, passed last spring, which requires most meetings of homeowners' association to be open and which regulates the election of members of the board.
Questions have been raised as to whether the Montgomery law oversteps into an area in which only the state may pass laws. The answer will come in an opinion to be issued by the state attorney general's office in about three weeks in response to a request by the Rockville city government, according to Assistant Attorney General Avery Aisenstark. Rockville would like to pass its own condo "sunshine" bill and wants to be sure it has the power.
The state commission's final report is due by January 1984.
Attorney Joesph D. Douglass, a former Montgomery County consumer agency official, is a member of the governor's commission and has applied for membership on the county task force. He said that the county body is expected to make an even broader and more detailed inquiry into the same issues as the governor's commission.
In Virginia, the legislature is not expected to take action on condominium legislation in its 45-day session that begins in January. Thus, a proposal to make condominium fees deductible on state tax returns is not likely to pass, said Diamond.
In the District, the city bar association has formed a committee to study ways to improve D.C. condominium law.