Although the HOA board for a master-planned development of some 2,230 homes has retracted a threatening letter mailed to nine people for posting social media comments deemed critical of the board, the community remains in emotional upheaval.
A recall attempt is underway for the Val Vista Lakes Community Association’s board president and vice president and a group of sign-carrying residents showed up at a special board meeting last Wednesday demanding answers relating to the initial threat.
“I was somewhat apathetic,” said resident Henry Kartagener, who moved to the community over two years ago and was carrying a sign outside the clubhouse before the meeting. “But when it got to the freedom of speech issue, I got involved.”
The meeting at times became heated with residents on both sides of the issue shouting at each other.
“Right now, the community is divided,” resident Joni Lang said. “Neighbors are afraid of neighbors.”
She blamed that on the derisive behavior on social media and said the board took steps to try to stop to it. She said board members are being harassed and it hurts their ability to do their job, which elicited angry comments from some of the attendees telling her “enough.”
The board did vote 5-1 to release 20 minutes of an audio at a Dec. 16 executive session when members made the decision to send out the threatening letters in an effort to clear the air and be transparent.
Board member Bill Suttell, attending via phone, argued against releasing the closed-session audio, saying it will open up a can of worms. He said everyone needed to move forward instead of pointing fingers.
Some residents still were not satisfied, saying the board could cherry-pick from the audio; they wanted tapes released from closed-door meetings going back to September on the issue.
Regulating social media use was brewing as early as the fall in the community when the board in October considered a policy on it and eventually tabled it after residents voiced objections.
The draft social media policy included banning homeowners from posting negative comments about the board, residents or the HOA’s employees and agents.
Penalties for violation included clubhouse privileges suspension, attorney fees and other costs related to enforcement action and fines ranging from $50 to $150.
The issue eventually grabbed outside attention when local media in early January publicized a letter that resident Ashley Nardecchia and eight others received from the Val Vista Lakes HOA’s attorney.
The letter accused them of posting social media comments about the board and other homeowners that “specifically defame and negatively impact others in the community” and demanded they “cease posting any disparaging, speculative, or defaming comments.”
Nardecchia, who could not be reached for comment, was the administrator of a private Facebook page for community members.
The attorney threatened the nine residents with a $250-a-day fine and suspension from community amenities such as the clubhouse and charter clubs.
Resident Lynda Saveski said she received a letter, which she called not legal.
“They have no right to send a letter denying First Amendment rights,” she said before the meeting. “There was nothing defamatory said.”
Shortly after the media stories, the HOA attorney sent another letter dated Jan. 28 to the nine recipients, saying the board decided to retract its initial threat and would not be issuing fines or suspending membership privileges.
But it urged them to refrain from “making statements on social media that could conflagrate an already volatile situation.”
The board followed up with a statement Jan. 30 to the community saying “it has no intention of prohibiting anyone’s right to express their opinions or criticisms” and asked residents to follow a harassment-free policy adopted by many companies.
Since late January, Nardecchia has organized a GoFundMe site to collect money to cover the costs that will be incurred with the recall process, such as mailers and signs.
As of last week, $1,480 was raised of the $2,000 goal. Nardecchia, who placed the blame for the community’s negative publicity on the leadership of the president and vice president, said on the site a recall was necessary after both ignored requests to step down.
Residents at last week’s meeting questioned how the board could even authorize the initial letter when there was no social media policy in place.
Kartagener told the board that the cease-and-desist letters was the white elephant in the room.
“I know the board approved a courtesy letter,” he said. “How many approved the actual letter that went out threatening the nine people?”
“That is the letter that went out,” board President Marci Johnson responded.
Kartagener said he wanted to know how many board members approved the final letter that was sent.
Director Dean Sanders said all the board members voted to send a courtesy letter and that the final letter was different from what he perceived a courtesy letter to be.
Kartagener said Sanders was not answering his questions and demanded if he or any board member approved the letter that the attorney eventually sent.
Johnson said the released audio “will tell exactly how the letter was presented.”
In responding to questions from residents, Johnson said the cost of drafting the social media policy and sending out the cease-and-desist letters was $1,817 and the nine who received the letters was based on their number of posts that were considered defamatory, hostile or harassing.
“Some group of people did a majority of the posts,” she said.
Diane Nielsen, whose husband was a former board president, said some of her criticism of the board included a claim that it didn’t want to spend money and things were falling apart.
She said playground equipment was being held together by duct tape and that the community’s man-made mountain with cascading waterfalls had exposures wires, both a liability concern.
Sanders said safety was the board’s top priority and movement was being made to address the mountain.
“We all live here,” he said. “Our No. 1 objective is safety.”
Ken Hassen, a former director, said he’s heard that story before.
“I was co-chair of maintenance and there were kids on swings that were rusty with metal hanging out,” he said. “It’s still there two years later.”
He said the board’s statement apologizing for the fallout of its action was disingenuous because it was still advocating for regulation by asking residents to take to heart a harassment free policy used by companies that doesn’t tolerate unwelcome, offensive and improper conduct.
“We are not a company,” Hassen said. “We are not employees. We are stakeholders. You can’t apply a company policy to a community.”
He said issues such as libel and slander in a community is addressed in civil court.
“Val Vista is not the place to give a $250 fine because someone stuck their tongue out at somebody else,” he said.
And the personal Facebook page that caused the uproar was a private page not belonging to the HOA or Association, he noted.
“This was not a Val Vista page,” he said. “It was an outside community page and Facebook had no problem with it. Val Vista can’t come over and fine people for saying something in Queen Creek but they do have a right if it happens on their premises. They can eject someone form the premise if they are behaving drunkenly or obnoxiously but they can’t do it if they are acting up in Phoenix. There’s a civil code for that.”
When residents show up for the monthly board meeting at 6:30 p.m. this Tuesday, Feb. 25, at the clubhouse, they expect closure, he said. The board has indicated the HOA attorney will be in attendance to answer questions from residents.
“We need a resolution, we require, we demand some kind of closure on this,” Hassen said. “The nine people are still concerned. (And) when people are threatened like that, everyone around them, it makes them frighten and makes them think twice before saying anything.”