Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Meet the candidate

Every politician needs to be seen holding
a baby. So here I am holding one,
my grandson Teddy. 

If you are a regular reader of this column, you know I detest politicians.  So it may come as a surprise to learn that I have become one.

No, folks, I’m not running for Congress, the state legislature, city council or even dogcatcher. (I'd just bring all those dogs home anyway.) I’m running for the Board of Directors of the private community where my wife and I live here in Florida.

We love this tropical paradise of 3,300 homes spread across 2,400 manicured acres. It has three golf courses, two country clubs, a creek where residents can kayak surrounded by gators, and a marina with a fleet of sailboats. I took lessons to become a certified sailor but dropped out the day I slipped off the boat and slashed my feet to ribbons on a bed of oyster shells. (Never understood “port “or “starboard” anyway. Why not just say left or right?)

We have a dozen Har-Tru tennis courts, pickleball courts (it's the latest craze in Florida, sort of a cross between tennis and ping-pong) and bocce (my idea of a contact sport). There are a couple of fishing piers, a butterfly garden and a fitness center with state of the art equipment, not to mention clubs for book lovers, bridge and poker players, MahJongg enthusiasts, gardeners, cyclists, singers, artists, thespians (my favorite word), environmentalists, bird watchers and other clubs I can’t name off the top of my head.

We even have our own private island in the Gulf of Mexico, a swath of sugary white sand studded with beach umbrellas. From a chaise underneath one, there’s no better place to lose yourself in a book or watch the pelicans circling over the gulf as they look for their lunch.

With the exception of a handful of malcontents  – the kind of people who, as my mother used to say, won’t be happy when they get to heaven – the folks who live here tend to be happy campers. Their happiness turns to panic when a hurricane is headed our way but – knock wood – that only happens every 10 years or so. 

Most residents are retired. Having kept their noses to the grindstone for most of their lives, they want to worry about nothing more than their tennis serve or where to meet for dinner. You can strike up a conversation with someone you meet on the boat to the beach and, next thing you know, you’ve made plans to get together for happy hour. It’s that kind of place. I thank my lucky stars every day that I live here, and hope to continue until the grim reaper comes to take me away.

We bought our first house here in 2007 but didn’t become full-timers until 2013 when we sold our Connecticut house. The next year we bought a larger place to accommodate our new grandchildren on the rare occasions they come to visit.  

I was vaguely aware the community was governed by a Board of Directors but never knew anyone who served on it, never attended a meeting, and never cared to. Everything seemed to be running smoothly and everyone was playing well together until a year and a half ago.

At that time, a newly elected Board, the majority of its members endorsed by a group of 400 or so residents who had initiated a lawsuit against the developer, took control following a contentious campaign. The residents' group had filed a lawsuit to prevent the developer from building more high rise condos. Zoning regulations prohibit the condos, so suing to stop the company from putting up towers they can't build anyway made little sense.

Two lawyers, including one hired at the recommendation of the residents' group, advised the previous Board not to get involved in the lawsuit. The majority of the current Board ignored that advice, filed a cross-claim and now we're in litigation up to our eyeballs. It could drag on for years.

Concerns about the suit – specifically, whether the community should join it or not, the fact the Board jumped into it despite promises they wouldn't, and the legal risks we may be facing if we lose – have pitted neighbor against neighbor and turned Board meetings into scream fests of the type one would expect to witness at a WWF wrestling match.  Nasty emails fly back and forth and you have to be careful what you say in front of people you don't know in case they feel strongly one way or the other and fly off the handle. If you want to see old people behaving like petulant children, this is the place to be.

The lawsuit has become a matter of pride for those who want to continue pursuing it.  The Board members who voted to join the suit are counting on most residents not taking the time to learn the details about it because the matter is mind-bogglingly complex and nuanced.

Most folks I know don't want the community involved in the suit.  Having watched the Machiavellian maneuvers of those who got us into it, neither do I. And I'm pissed at the tactics a group representing less than 15 percent of homeowners have used to turn this idyllic community into their own personal litigation playground. 

A Board election is about to be held. For months I hoped someone who sees things my way would step up to the plate and run against two incumbents who voted to join the suit, but, as I write, only one other candidate has announced her intention to do so. So I’m throwing my hat into the ring. Winners will be announced at the end of March.  

Last time I ran for anything I was a high school sophomore, running for Student Council. Fifty years later I’m a candidate once again.

A campaign, as I have been reminded after all these years, is a massive commitment of time and energy. There are “Meet the Candidate” parties to attend, speeches to give, and campaign materials to write, design and distribute, not to mention an avalanche of phone calls, texts and and emails every day. Because most residents are retired, there aren’t many babies to kiss at campaign events. Maybe I will ask my son and daughter-in-law to lend me one of theirs so I can look like an authentic politician.

If, by chance I win – and I am going to give it my best shot – I will be up to my eyeballs in details and meetings for the foreseeable future.

But I’m ready for it. Bring it on.  

I was getting tired of having all that fun anyway.                

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Buyer beware of fake gift cards

I am not a gardener. Any plant I gaze upon shrivels and dies within minutes. Any plant I actually touch shrivels and dies within seconds.

Naturally, my oldest son loves to garden and has a green thumb. Every Spring, he heads to a Home Depot Garden Center to load up with plants, mulch, fertilizer, beanstalks or whatever it is that gardeners buy. So for Christmas, I gave him a Home Depot gift card.

I purchased it at a Staples store where it was hanging on a rack near the cash register. The rack contained hundreds of cards issued by Staples, chain restaurants, other retailers, iTunes, Visa, American Express, etc.

In my first draft of this post, I went into excruciating detail nobody in their right mind would want to read, explaining how I wound up buying a fake card.  It is a long, convoluted and, to me at least, intriguing story that involves criminal acts and behavior on someone's part but I can't tell you who that someone is because nobody knows.  I'll be happy to email it to you if you really want a blow-by-blow. Assuming you don't, the paragraph below will suffice.

The gift card I bought had no bar code on the back. I would not have been able to see that unless I removed it from the package it came in and examined it before I bought it. It did, however, have a die-cut window on the back side of the package that revealed a "real" bar code printed on a plastic tab. Once scanned by the Staples cashier, an account was created that told Home Depot there was a $100 credit. Unfortunately, someone, somewhere, got that credit and has most likely used it by now. Instructions said to remove the plastic tab after purchase. I not only removed it, I threw it away. Luckily, I kept the cash register receipt showing the digits associated with that code. I placed the fake card in a tin box decorated with flowers and gave it to my son. He picked up on the missing bar code instantly.

I took the fake card to my local Home Depot store, which said it wasn't their problem. So did the manager of the Staples store. I was unable to reach a human when I called Home Depot headquarters. I left a message on voicemail but nobody called me back.  Because I had used a credit card, I called the issuing bank to dispute the charge. The agent assured me I wouldn't be held responsible. It certainly wasn't the bank's fault either but they guarantee customer purchases so the bank is the real victim here.

Why am I telling you this? To warn you to be cautious when buying gift cards. I’ve since read that gift card fraud is rampant but the companies that issue them are keeping it quiet because gift cards,  despite all that fraud, are highly profitable. Some articles advise buying gift cards directly from the store/restaurant/etc. where they are to be used, not at a “big box” store or supermarket that sells card brands other than its own.

Gift cards are easy to buy and give but ...  beware. Make sure to examine any card you purchase from one of those hanging racks before you leave the store. That means you will probably have to remove it from the packaging and examine the reverse side which doesn't always show through.

And now I’m off to buy a “real” Home Depot gift card to replace the fraudulent one I gave my son.

Spring is just around the corner and, knowing him, he is already planning his garden.