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Communication missing in association squabbles

If you got a creepy, creeping sense of deja vu while reading a front page story in Thursday's Union Democrat, you're not crazy.

But the directors of a homeowners' association down in Copper Cove just might be.

The Thursday story, "Homeowner fined in Copperopolis," is eerily reminiscent of a 2004 Union Democrat report that the same association had then repossessed a home and sold it at auction.

The reason? Homeowners Thomas and Anita Radcliff failed to pay a paltry $120 in association dues.

The Radcliff case was eventually settled and the couple recovered their home. But now fined homeowners Ken and Susie Gutman are afraid the same thing could happen to them.

Asked if the Gutmans' unpaid fine — $500 on Sept. 27 and rising $10 a day — could escalate to foreclosure, Copper Cove and Lake Tulloch Owners' Association President Gary Whitley declined comment.

Which isn't going to make Ken and Susie sleep any better at night.

The Gutmans' bad dream began last March, when Ken asked the association for a permit to build an addition to his Council Trail home with a ground-level entrance. The work, which had already been approved by the Calaveras County Building Department, would allow the handicapped ex-police officer easier access to his home.

When the association hadn't communicated a decision in six weeks, his builder started work. Under subdivision bylaws, Gutman said, the lack of response from the homeowners' association constituted assent.

Contractor Marty Hurley began work in May, finished the addition in June, then got final county approval. But two weeks later Gutman got a "stop-work" order from the association.

The June 26 notice, Gutman said, cited him for "unauthorized construction of a garage" — which it wasn't.

A long period of silence ensued. Then, on Sept. 27, the association told Gutman that the "current balance due for this violation" is $500 and that his fine would increase $10 day.

Gutman, as he should, hired a lawyer.

The Owners' Association directors should also hire someone — someone who can teach common sense, courtesy, respect and communication. Because it seems obvious that the board learned little from the explosive and controversial Radcliff case three years ago.

"Communication isn't the board's long suit," understated Gutman.

He's right: Just as directors let the Radcliff case reach the point of no return by dealing with the couple only with notices, threats and, finally, attorneys, they have opened no dialogue and asked no explanations from the Gutmans.

Owners' Association directors are neighbors of their constituents. If they acted a little more neighborly, perhaps small problems could be solved instead of escalating to the point where residents are scared their homes will be foreclosed upon or their improvements torn down.

Many of those who live in the Copper Cove and Tulloch areas migrated from the valley or Bay Area for peace and quiet. What they almost certainly were not seeking is the atmosphere of fear and paranoia the association board seems to have on occasion created.

It is not too late to resolve the Gutmans' problems. The board need only reach out and talk — perhaps even face-to-face, as strange as that might seem — with their aggrieved constituents.

In doing so, directors should keep in mind that they were elected to serve the subdivision's residents, not to oversee them as serfs in a personal fiefdom.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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