Paradise Lost

For many residents, the luster of Williams Island is long gone

Harvey Houtkin, the self-proclaimed "father of day trading," is speaking into a microphone. Houtkin, a stout man who won a 1993 federal appeal against the SEC that expanded small-trading access on NASDAQ, wears a black polo shirt and glasses. He and the other eleven men at the table form the board of the Williams Island Property Owners Association (POA), whose January meeting is being videotaped.

"I personally believe that the least qualified person to run this island is Rod White," Houtkin says emphatically, referring to the president of the POA, who sits a few feet away. Some of the meeting's few dozen attendees break into applause. Houtkin waits for the noise to subside, then qualifies his statement.

"He has demonstrated bad judgment, and in my opinion," he says, and pauses. "Moral turpitude."

A roar of dissent erupts from some of the chairs. Houtkin groans loudly and runs his hand across his forehead in exasperation.

"It's not the forum!" complains a derisive voice in back.

"The truth cannot be said — "

"Shut up!" croaks one woman.

"You shut up, you witch!" Houtkin yells.

"You're out of order!" screams a man not visible in the video.

"You're out of order."

Following a cacophony of scuffling and expletive-laden shouting among various audience members, Houtkin faces the group and asks, "You going to beat me up?"

"Yeah I'll beat you up!" says a man.

"Come on!" taunts the retired stock trader.

At the bottom of the frame, Jerry Cohen, a silver-haired man in his seventies wearing a pink button-down shirt, is seen standing up. He heads to the table where Houtkin sits. The camera pans toward him. Uniformed security guards run into the frame.

"THIS IS A DISASTER FOR OUR ISLAND!" yells Houtkin. "THIS IS A DISASTER!"

He turns to his restrained would-be assailant. "Smack me! Go ahead, smack me!"

The video was shown in a loop on Williams Island's private television network for days following the altercation. Houtkin and his neighbors live a life of luxury in this elite gated community of high-rise towers in Aventura, but lately the mood has been tense. The exclusive enclave on Dumbfoundling Bay appeared to be experiencing growing pains.

Less than a mile from the strip malls and traffic jams of Biscayne Boulevard, Williams Island is a world unto itself. Visitors drive along a short causeway and pass through two checkpoints before arriving in the heart of the 80-acre paradise. Vines climb on palm trees and large fans turn slowly in the verandahs of luxury villas. Children languidly float on styrofoam noodles in sparkling swimming pools. Retirees in oxford shirts and loafers gently stroke their already-gleaming megayachts with chamois cloths. Mute employees sweep the clay tennis courts smooth.

For most of the nearly 2000 residents on the island, life does not get more complicated than that. But every community has its civic-minded upstarts, its Thomas Paines and Martin Luthers, who concern themselves with the destiny of their maintenance fees (around $1400 a month for most residents of Williams Island), and who are prone to producing the occasional manifesto. It is within this small population — the members of the property owners association, their supporters, and their detractors —that a rift has opened.

It began about three years ago, when the POA decided to purchase the Island's tennis courts, spa, clubs, and restaurant from the company that developed the land, the Trump Group (a South African family with no connection to Donald). Residents approved the deal by a four-to-one margin, but to a minority of dissenters, it contained questionable elements: a price that seemed high for buildings that had fallen into disrepair, a marketing campaign designed to smother criticism, and a contract that was under wraps. The ensuing split took a turn toward the personal, and for some, the intense security of the island — originally seen as an asset — took on Orwellian overtones. Smear campaigns were undertaken, anonymous letters were circulated, and lawsuits were filed.

So-called "common interest communities" like Williams Island espouse an almost Jeffersonian model of self-determination. Instead of paying municipal governments for services like trash pick-up and street maintenance, property owners fork over monthly sums to be managed by fellow residents. But while it's a city's duty to ensure that specific tasks are handled by licensed practitioners (be they accountants, lawyers, or engineers), the chief qualification of community association leadership is often enthusiasm, regardless of ability to interpret a financial statement or a legal document. Ineptitude is rampant and embezzlement not unheard of: In late February residents of a Boca Raton community filed a lawsuit alleging their former association president had stolen more than $100,000. In Lakeland a judge had to declare a "special master" of a community association after two different boards both claimed to be in control, each calling the other illegitimate.

The contentious scene that unfolded at Williams Island is far from atypical. Bill Raphan, an employee of Florida's Condominium Ombudsman's Office, says that off-duty police officers and fisticuffs are common at meetings of the state's 20,000 community associations. "I've seen some pretty violent stuff," he says, recalling the time a resident pulled a gun on him during an attempted mediation. Raphan left under security escort.

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