It can be easy for seasoned, veteran board members to recall both the excitement and challenge of being elected to the post. For many, the first weeks and months are a daunting experience requiring a learning curve that is not always easily afforded. Like most other situations in life, until one walks in the proverbial shoes, it is difficult to actually understand all that an experience entails. As a result, new board members have countless questions swirling through their minds: What are my duties? How do I obtain the minutes from the meeting? When can I bring my issues to the board? Are there books to read or courses to take?
There are specific answers for the aforementioned questions (and the plethora of others that arise), but one general answer speaks to the lot of them, explains Ian Gopin, president and CEO of G&G Management Elite Development Group. “Every board is different, with different size communities and different ways of approaching situations and issues, including what is expected of new board members and how they might be treated.”
In order for there to be a new board member, there obviously has to be turnover. However, Gopin said he is surprised just how little turnover there is in his Massachusetts market. “Roughly 70 percent of the clients that hired me haven’t had any changes in the last seven years,” he says. When asked why there is such a small turnover rate, he responded, “Some owners are very quick to comment and question the board but not many people are willing to volunteer their time and take on the issues.”
Whether a board has a slow or fast turnover rate, the experience for the newly elected is always trying. “When I first sat on the board, I wasn’t offered much help, and I certainly wasn’t encouraged to bring my issues to the table at first,” says Jamie Epranian, a former condominium owner who also sat on the Danbury, Connecticut Lake Waubeeka Association board for three years. “In hindsight, it would have been better for me to hang back and listen more but I wanted to be part of the process and not all the senior board members liked that approach initially.”
Learn as You Go
Dale Carnegie once said, “Learning is an active process. We learn by doing. Only knowledge that is used sticks in your mind.” This adage seems to hold true for new board members, explains Ed Hofeller of The Hofeller Company in Brookline, Massachusetts.
“Becoming a new board member is a ‘learn as you go experience,’” he says. “It is not common for board members (new or otherwise) to call the management company seeking advice. They would rather ask a fellow board member.” And like Gopin, Hofeller adds that he doesn’t see a lot of board turnover. “It is difficult to get people to run for the board, so we see turnover as a very, very slow process. In many cases, board positions open up because a board member sells their unit and moves on.”
When a position does open up and a new board member is elected, often times the response from veteran board members is positive, explains Jean Dobbin, president of the Naugatuck, Connecticut-based Dobbin Management. “Most times veteran board members are grateful for the new blood on the board and will help them and encourage them during the transition,” she says.
While a management company serves as a conduit when necessary for board members, by and large, all new board members are expected to read the condominium bylaws and familiarize themselves with past issues, local laws, meet with the attorney, managing agent and accountant and/or financial reports.
“What we find most often is the newly elected board member is not new to the condominium process, meaning they have owned a condo before and likely know what they are getting themselves into,” says Gopin. “At times, we receive questions and concerns from board members, and we are happy to assist them with any questions they might have,” he adds.
For Epranian, it wasn’t the management company that he turned to but resources made available to him such as the bylaws and certain case law as well as slowly befriending fellow board members. “While I stayed on the board for three years, it took me awhile, maybe a year, before I began to feel comfortable on the dais,” he continues. “I had my own issues that I was concerned with, but there were board members that were on for years that had their issues, and they waited their turn. So aside from the pressing necessary matters, it was the type of situation where you had to wait your turn, and for me, I had the least seniority and therefore waited the longest.”
All the management companies cited suggested that new board members attend the Community Association Institute’s (CAI) ABCs course. The course receives high marks and is listed by CAI as “the most comprehensive review of community association operations available. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll get out of this course as you review the history, organization, and financial structure of community associations and learn problem-solving techniques.”
Dobbin served as chair of the Municipal Services Committee for the Connecticut chapter of CAI, later served as chair of the Manager’s Council and director of the Connecticut chapter of CAI’s Executive Board of Directors. She says the course is an excellent resource for newcomers. “The class is beneficial and boards can purchase the ABCs book that accompanies the class,” says Dobbin. “Some associations have purchased this book for their library so when new board members come on board they can reference it.”
Aside from the ABC course and book, Gopin says most boards do not have a standing manual or tutorial for new board members, which makes courses offered by CAI so important to the process although they are not always well attended. “In some areas there might some other types of courses here and there, but there is really not much out there,” he says. “But rarely do we see our clients attending CAI events or courses. Again, these are volunteer positions and most people do not feel the need to put in the extra effort, or they have a certain skill set such as being an attorney and that is why they joined the board.”
To facilitate outreach, Gopin said his firm does a lot of work with boards via email and website portals. “We bring them up to speed on old events and Cc: them on upcoming events and let them know if they should be involved or not,” he continues. “On occasion, we do offer specific training on certain topics for the boards. This might consist of an informal get together with a presentation from a vendor that needs to perform a service, our attorney and we might bring some pizza, too and there is usually a good showing, so we hope to do more of these events.”
Regardless of what tutorial is used, Hofeller said he finds education, particularly the CAI course, to be “quite helpful and useful” for new board members. What he and other industry experts agree on is that there is always ramp-up phase for new board members. Without an open mind, education and observational skills in place, the board meetings will not run smoothly.
“What new board members have to be careful about is discussing board matters outside the board room which can happen in the beginning and cause trouble,” says Dobbin. “If they have a concern that can’t be helped or addressed by another board member, they should immediately contact their managing agent for assistance.”
While Epranian says there was never “trouble” with fellow board members, there was discourse at times which ultimately didn’t serve the community. “There are always things you would do different, but overall it was an interesting experience,” he says. “While it is a volunteer position and a timely one at that, you are in a position to help your community. As long as that remain the goal, they shouldn’t be any issues but life isn’t always that perfect.”
On rare occasions, Gopin said he has seen complete board turnover. “There have been cases were there were five people out and five people in,” he says, adding that it was a “painful” experience. “In another situation, we had 11 people running for a board of six, and the six simply resigned and moved on. It comes down sometimes to a ‘new sheriff in town’ mentality.”
In the above cases, it is imperative that management takes an active role in the educational process, especially if an entirely new board has little or no experience. While this is the exception and not the rule, Dobbin offered parting advice for new board members: “Don’t get overwhelmed. Take your time, learn and it will all come to you in good time.”
W.B. King is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium.