A reader recently asked how frequently a unit owner has a right to view the official records. In this person’s case there was a unit owner requesting official record documents on a weekly basis. This question prompted the following post on unit owner official records access.
Every Florida condominium association is required by law to maintain official records. An overview of what constitutes official records is provided here with a more detailed overview of financial records here. Florida Statutes 718.111(12)(b) and 718.111(12)(c) provide unit owners the right to view and make copies of official records; however, aside from very basic guidelines, the association remains responsible for creating reasonable rules surrounding the frequency, time, location, notice and manner of unit owner record inspections. Because associations are left to construct official record inspection rules, I recommend (as I always do) that the board create and distribute a policy around official records access. In general, it is my opinion that the more official records transparency the better; is a great way to earn unit owner trust.
This post will review the access provisions laid out in the Florida Statutes and provide general guidelines on constructing a reasonable official records access policy.
Florida Statute Guidelines
- Official records must be maintained within the state for 7 years
- Official records must be made available within 5 days of a unit owner’s written request
- Official records must be available to unit owners within the condo’s county (or within 45 miles if the county boarder is more than 45 miles from the condominium)
- Official records must be open to inspection at reasonable times
- Associations may charge a reasonable expense for copies of official records
- Associations may approve reasonable rules surrounding frequency, time, location, notice & manner of inspections
- Unit owners who are denied access to the official records 10+ days after a written request are eligible for damages no lesser than $50 per day and reimbursement of any attorney’s fees.
- Unit owners may take photos of official records with a camera, phone or other electronic device.
- The association must maintain copies of the declaration, articles of incorporation, bylaws, rules & regulations, frequently asked question & answer sheet and most recent year-end financial report on the condominium property for unit owners and prospective purchasers. The association may charge its actual costs of preparing these documents.
- The following documents are protected and NOT available to unit owners: (1) documents protected by lawyer-client privilege; (2) information associated with the sale of a unit; (3) homeowner medical records and other confidential information such as Social Security Numbers; (4) association security information (e.g., passwords); and (5) personnel records (if the association has employees).
NOTE: Personnel records include items such as the health records, W-4s and performance reviews. This records exemption does not include salary details of the employee as this information should be readily available in the association’s budget.
Official Records Storage
Before an association can establish reasonable rules around unit owner access to official records, the board must have a good handle on how/ where official records are stored. Associations that are self-managed or in-house managed have much more control over the storage of their official records than do professionally managed associations. As I discussed in length in my post on management transitions, I strongly recommend that boards of professionally managed associations complete official records “audits” from time to time to ensure proper records maintenance. I also recommend that boards provide guidelines to their management companies on how they would like their records organized and stored. Here are a few recommendations:
- If the association has an on-site office or lobby, consider keeping a computer with all official records on it for unit owners to review at any time.
- If the association has a website, keep the association’s key records (e.g., financial statements, meeting minutes, agendas, budgets, reserve studies, insurance information) on the website for unit owners to access at their convenience. This also provides a web-based backup of the official records so there is no concern about them being destroyed due to theft or natural disaster.
- Keep binders with hard copies of all frequently requested records on property or at the manager’s office. A simple way to do this is to have a binder for each key item.
- Store any hard copy records that will be accessed infrequently (e.g., copies of checks, invoices from prior years) in a professional storage facility designed to withstand hurricane force winds.
Official Records Access Policy
Given that the Florida Statutes provide associations with the flexibility to create reasonable rules surrounding official records access, I believe establishing a policy is prudent in that it specifically informs management how to proceed and ensures consistent unit owner treatment. Of course, if your association has its official records readily available on property or electronically for unit owner viewing at their convenience, the majority of this policy becomes irrelevant. If unit owners in your community are frequently asking for official records documents and your records are primarily in hard copy, it may be worth contracting to have all of your records scanned and made available via the web. From personal experience, the time saved by directing every official records request to one website is well worth the upfront cost.
I would recommend that every official records access policy include the following:
Governing Documents, FAQ Sheet & Year-end Financial Report: While the Florida Statutes specifically say “copies” of these documents must be available on property, the association should focus instead on compliance with the spirit of the law. If the association would like to keep paper copies of these documents on property, that’s great. If that doesn’t make sense for your association, I believe the following options also comply with the law: (1) making the documents available on a website, (2) making them available on a CD/ thumb drive, (3) emailing them to the requestor.
The policy should specify how these documents will be provided to unit owners/ potential buyers and any costs associated with these documents. The law specifically states the association may charge actual costs of these documents. If they are available via website or email, there should be no charge. If available via hard copy, CD, or thumb drive, the association should charge whatever amount the manager or document preparation services (e.g., Kinkos) charges the association. For self-managed associations completing printing work in-house, a cost of $.10 – $.15 per page for black and white or $.50 for color is reasonable. This range should cover your paper, ink and printer wear and tear. If creating CDs or thumb drives in-house, the cost should reflect the actual cost of the CD or thumb drive.
Copying Fees: For official records excluded from #1, the association may charge a reasonable fee for copies, CDs or thumb drives of these records. I don’t see this as much different than actual cost given that it seems unreasonable for the association to make a profit (even if a small one) on official record distribution. As mentioned above, unit owners should charge the exact cost charged to them by the manager or other professional preparing the records. For self-managed associations, the cost guidelines mentioned in #1 remain reasonable though the association may charge an additional amount for time spent making copies so long as the amount is defendable.
Viewing Location: The policy should specify where unit owners may view the records. There may be multiple locations. For example, meeting minutes, budgets and monthly financials may be available on the association’s website while copies of contracts and invoices are available at the management company’s office.
Frequency of Requests: The policy should specify how frequently a unit owner may request records and clarify that any requests in excess of the frequency limitations will not be accepted. There is no right choice: daily may be too burdensome on the association but quarterly may be too limiting for the unit owner. It may be worthwhile here to distinguish between how frequently a unit owner may request electronic records (i.e., those that can be easily emailed) and how frequently they may request viewing of hard copy records. These specifics will entirely depend on how your property is managed and how records are stored.
Viewing Times: The policy should specify when documents are available for review. For those available on the web, there is no limitation on viewing time. For all other documents, viewing times may be by appointment during the management company’s business hours.
Making a Request: This section should indicate how the unit owner makes a request. It should specify who the unit owner contacts and what information to provide. I would recommend associations require unit owners to select specific records or groups of records (e.g., 2009-2011 budgets, March 13, 2013 invoice from Joe Plumber). This avoids the “I’d like to see all your records” requests which are nearly impossible to accommodate. Generally these requests arise if a unit owner feels the association is hiding something. All requests should be in writing (mail or email). The policy may also require the unit owner to provide his/ her availability over coming days (if applicable).
Request Response: This section should indicate how and when the association will respond. The law states that documents must be made available within 5 days of a written request. Do not read this to mean that in all circumstances the documents must be in the hands of the requestor within 5 days. If the association has the requested documents available electronically, they should certainly be emailed within 5 days. However, for hard copy documents, the association should respond as promptly as possible (I’d recommend within 1 business day) and offer reasonable viewing time(s) that fall within the 5 days window.
As I recommend with all policies, the association’s attorney should review the policy before it is finalized. Further, the board should re-review and re-approve the policy annually to ensure continued compliance with applicable law.
Feel free to reach out with any questions.
Emily Shaw is a condominium homeowner in Tampa, Florida and a Director of VERA Property Management, a firm providing full-service community association management in the Tampa Bay Area as well as consulting, financial and legal services to all Florida community associations.