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November 1, 2014

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A campaign closer to home

HOA boards might not be glamorous, but they can exert great influence on daily life

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Leila Navidi

Candidates and Aliante residents wait for officials to count the votes in the third district during board member elections this week at the annual meeting of the Aliante Master Association in North Las Vegas. Of 14,000 residents in the community, just 1,000 ballots were returned. Twenty-two candidates ran for seats on the seven-member board.

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Monya Kegler, an administrative assistant for The Ballot Box, a company hired to conduct the Aliante association election, counts the votes Monday.

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Mark Klein has made a pair of decisions that illustrate life on the edge of the desert in the new West.

In 2004 he traded in his nearly 2-acre spread ranch — with four horses, three dogs and a chicken coop — for a 0.10-acre lot with a 1,157-square-foot two-bedroom house with a manicured lawn and a cinder block wall.

He threw in with 6,370 other homes in the new master planned community of Aliante, where not a dying palm tree nor a broken bottle is to be found.

Next, Klein, a 67-year-old retired casino security executive, decided he should run the place.

•••

Only six years ago, Klein rode his horses on the land that is now Aliante.

The land had been owned by the Bureau of Land Management, and sold for development in 2001. In 2004 homes started sprouting. Today it’s more than 75 percent completed.

And that defines critical mass when the developer turns control of the community over to residents.

And this means that Aliante’s residents must pick seven from among their ranks to serve as the board of directors of the Aliante Master Association. It conducts business on behalf of the community, keeps the common grounds groomed and the walls clean, and enforces the pages and pages of homeowner rules that protect aesthetics and property values by addressing such issues as where you can park your cars and what colors you can paint your house trim.

This is how thankless and frustrating the job is: Of the 14,000 Aliante residents, only 22 people are willing to serve on the board.

Mark Klein is one of them.

•••

The residents of Aliante would have only one opportunity to meet the candidates for the master homeowners association. It would be held at the community library on the Monday night before the nation elected Barack Obama the next president.

Of the 14,000 residents, 23 show up.

Of the 22 candidates, 13 don’t bother to make an appearance.

The nine who do are joined by three members of the management company that handles day-to-day association business.

“How do you plan on getting people involved if you can’t even get people to show up here?” asks Mark Smith, a member of the Sun City association board, which represents about one-third of Aliante.

•••

One board candidate is Romeo Durscher, 33, a research project manager for Stanford University in California. He works from the Aliante home he shares with his longtime girlfriend.

“I’m proud to be here,” he says in a Swiss accent that’s stuck in the decade since moving to the United States. “I’m proud to own my own house. I get enjoyment out of solving problems.”

That’s his reasoning for trying to become a member of the inaugural board. Durscher is on the board of a smaller homeowners association in Aliante.

Recently he helped persuade Clark County to put rocks on the berms lining the 215 beltway that bisects Aliante.

How to make the community more neighborly is another issue.

“You can have block parties and they will come out and talk to each other,” Durscher says. “But then that’s it. I don’t know what’s the answer to that problem.”

•••

Klein moved to North Las Vegas in the early 1980s. He lived on the ranch in the rural area until four years ago.

By then Aliante was the new suburban encroachment into the desert.

(Part of Aliante was developed by North Valley Enterprises, LLC, an affiliate of American Nevada Co. American Nevada is owned by the Greenspun family, which owns the Las Vegas Sun.)

At first Klein fought the development, trying to preserve his way of life. But it became fruitless. Las Vegas, it seems, is never going to stop spreading, like a nasty workplace rumor.

He sold the ranch and moved into enemy territory.

Today he’s happy. Aliante Station casino just opened and the shopping center south of the beltway has a grocery store.

“It’s getting to that point that you don’t have to leave the area,” he says contentedly, sipping a Diet Coke in a franchise bar on a chunk of land that used to be part of his desert playground.

•••

There is little — if any — campaigning in the weeks leading up to the election. Homeowners will get a fat envelope in the mail containing each board candidate’s application, with a short questionnaire.

Durscher’s application includes detailed ideas for improving security, management and community events. Another candidate simply scrawls on his application, in capital letters: “I am a homeowner who cares about his community and I am retired.”

The candidates don’t learn who they are running against, or when the election is scheduled, until Nov. 3. Ballots are sent to homeowners the next day.

Klein and two other candidates chip in $15 each to put ads in the Sun City community newsletter.

“I’m not doing anything,” acknowledges candidate Jerry Dockens, 61, a sales manager. “I threw my hat in the ring. A few people know me and if they pick me that’s fine.”

It’s not exactly “Yes We Can!”

In the end less than 1,000 ballots are mailed back to the management company.

•••

When the board is seated, the first order of business will be taking a close look at the $3.2 million budget.

Each homeowner pays $39 per month in dues (plus any fees due to a sub association). It totals nearly $250,000 a month — or the cost of a modest home in Aliante.

The candidates look at the budget skeptically.

The association spends $1.3 million annual on a landscaping contract? There’s a $27,000 monthly water bill? And they are not shy about wondering whether the $267,540 annual fee for the management company is a fair rate.

These questions will generate a flurry of e-mail among new board members after they’re elected, as they float ideas and decide how to review the budget.

•••

Klein has experience with these kinds of leadership roles.

He’d never say it, but he loves being on the Sun City association board. He and his senior pals have a clique that’s focused almost entirely on gossiping about the goings-on in the community.

He’s gets knocks on his door and phone calls, and people stop him during his 10 a.m. daily workout, interrupting his bench press reps.

He likes the company.

In fact, Klein, a man with an ever-present smile, likes talking to people so much that he recently took an $8-an-hour gig delivering auto parts just for something to do.

Retirement had been tricky. He ballooned to 302 pounds by having nothing to do but exercise and eat. He did more of one than the other.

But in the past three months, he’s lost more than 50 pounds, almost back to his fighting weight from his days serving as a bodyguard for Sammy Davis Jr.

Serving on the master board would just be an extension of what he does, dealing with people and taking charge.

•••

In September federal and local law enforcement conducted raids as part of an investigation into collusion between homeowners associations and businesses benefiting from construction defect lawsuits.

It has led to an increased focus on area associations.

So on election night in Aliante, the opening and counting of each ballot is done in public. The management company hires a firm that uses electronic scanning machines to count the votes.

New board members welcome scrutiny.

“You don’t want your next door neighbor on the board,” candidate Mark Pallans says. “You want people with management experience. This is not a small business. This is a multiple-million-dollar organization.”

•••

The new board will have a lot of power, possibly even making more stringent rules about lawn maintenance, car parking and other issues.

Felix Teniente says at the candidate forum: “It’s a sad situation ... I hate when people don’t park where they are supposed to. This shows these are people who do not care about their community.”

Durscher is all about rules. “We have to enforce the CC&Rs to set the tone,” he says.

Some people might be put off by his militant attitude, but Durscher sees the board as the front line on the war to keep property values as high as they can be. If you let one thing slide, the neighborhood can start to crumble.

Sociologists call it the broken widow effect.

But there is a keen awareness that strict rule enforcement can lead to the Nixonian downfall of an association politician.

“Nobody wants a Gestapo-type board,” Dockens says. “And nobody wants their neighbor to have an ugly-looking place.”

• • •

The ballots are counted in a room in the back of the Sun City Community Center, past the pool table, the gym, the computer lab and the room where a bridge tournament is happening.

About 40 people fill the space as the process begins at 5:30 p.m.

But it soon becomes apparent that, even with the electronic counting, this is going to take awhile.

The room slowly thins out as supper time beckons.

Durscher, Pallans and Dockens are among the winners.

Klein hangs out in the back of the room, surrounded by his crew of fellow retirees happy that they have nowhere better to be.

Everyone is pretty sure he’s going to win, since he’s the kind of guy it’s tough to say anything bad about, even if he just fined you $100 for leaving your garage door open.

At 7:38 p.m., Klein officially becomes a board member with 418 votes. Nobody expects a speech.

“Mark, you won,” he is told.

“Oh, I didn’t hear it. Oh, OK.”

He checks his watch.

It’s time for dinner for this one-time rancher, back home with the manicured lawn and the cinder block wall.

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