THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Talk to me: Missed communication on the mountain

Compared most of the disputes I cover, this week's dust-up may seem trivial at first glance. Even so, it raises issues that merit discussion– primarily, the critical need for good communication: Without it, even relatively minor complaints can end up causing terrific frustration. 

Rosemary Stepnowski moved to White Oak Condominiums at Wintergreen in March 2004. From the beginning, she claims, she asked for 48-hour notice of scheduled maintenance "in order to avoid interference with workmen's duties and responsibilities." According to Stepnowski, however, there was no notice of any kind before two incidents in the spring of 2006.

Stepnowski claims that when she got home on March 15, she discovered that a table lamp had been broken. Lynnda Gilliam, managing agent for the owners' association, looked at the damaged lamp and told Stepnowski that although inspections had been scheduled for that week, Stepnowski's condo had not been included since she's a year-round resident (most of the units are second homes). Therefore, Gilliam declared, there was no possibility that an employee could have broken the lamp– even though Stepnowski, who lives alone, was adamant that no one else could have been in her condominium that day. 

Both sides agree that on April 7, Stepnowski arrived home from work at 11pm and could not get in because the deadbolt, which she never uses, had been locked. She called Gilliam, who arrived with a key and explained that Dodson Brothers Exterminating had been in the condominium that day. 

When I asked Gilliam why Stepnowski hadn't been notified that Dodson would be in her unit, Gilliam said that she hadn't realized they would be, either: The exterminator does one-half of the units per visit, and normally Stepnowski's would not have been included in that rotation. But because she'd been having trouble with mice and was on a problem list, the Dodson employees had gone ahead and entered her unit– and then, on leaving, locked the deadbolt without realizing Stepnowski doesn't carry that key with her. 

After I spoke with Gilliam, I got a call from Roy Allison, a part-time resident and vice president of the White Oak Condominiums board of directors. Allison said that he "[couldn't] imagine" Gilliam not taking care of Stepnowski's complaints promptly and well, and added that the board has "utmost confidence and faith" in Gilliam's abilities as a property manager. 

In a lengthy written response to my questions about Stepnowski's dissatisfaction, Gilliam asserted unequivocally that the employee who performed the inspections last March had not entered Stepnowski's unit: In addition to checking his maintenance log, Gilliam claimed, she had spoken with the employee. Furthermore, based on her own inspection of the lamp, she claims that it was "found to be of flimsy construction," and stated that "it is not unreasonable to conclude" that it broke on its own. 

I think the jury's still out on this one, however, especially since in her group of six units, Stepnowski is the only year-round resident; the employee could have begun his inspection before realizing it wasn't on the list. 

In her letter, Gilliam went on to list a number of things that have been done to Stepnowski's unit to address past problems and forestall future problems, such as adding extra exterior caulking, treating and painting several preexisting ceiling stains, and installing a new ground drainage system and rain diverter. Also, because Stepnowski is a year-round resident, "her walkways are always done first" when there's snow or ice. 

Gilliam ascribes the problems to Stepnowski's alleged penchant for writing "inaccurate" letters to the board of directors and either having her daughter call to report problems or relaying messages through contractors. "Occasionally," she adds, "we receive a direct call, for which we are grateful." 

Allison says that the board hopes to meet soon with Stepnowski so that all of her concerns can be aired and addressed– and whatever it takes, I hope that both sides agree to communicate directly and with respect from now on. 

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, Charlottesville 22902.