It’s an unfortunate fact of condominium life: Board members’ responsibilities and their personal agendas intermingle more often than they should.
After all, it’s part of human nature to want the best for us or our loved ones. Face it, most of us vote for political candidates based on what the candidate would do to benefit our own personal lives. Parents might join the PTA or a school committee because their child is in the school and they want to makecertain he or she receives the best benefits possible – and then leave the committee or PTA when their offspring moves on to another school.
When it comes to community association boards, members may run for the post because they have a personal issue that’s important to them and they want to see it through. That might not sound like a bad thing, but those personal agendas can become troublesome when they impact an association board’s effectiveness, or even cost the condominium money.
Property manager David J. Levy, PCAM, has seen a recession-related resurgence in board members and trustees angling to get condo contractsfor their relatives. “I’m starting to get, ‘Why use XX Insurance (the incumbent provider)? My brother-in-law is a broker, and I know he’s looking for business,’” says Levy, president of Sterling Services, Inc. in Holliston, Massachusetts.
Sometimes, disgruntled owners will get on the board because of a vendetta against another board member. “They will try to use the board to mediate a noise complaint or gripes against each other,” says one veteran condo attorney.
These board meetings can become so difficult that the board turns to its legal counsel for advice. “I had to go to every meeting for a year,” says the attorney. “Most properties would not need an attorney, but for an entire year, all they were doing was yelling and screaming at each other. It was the most intelligent board with people who worked for the biggest and finest companies.”
Selfish Motives Not all Bad
Attorney Charles A. Perkins, Jr., however, says that selfish motives in running for the board don’t always lead to poor outcomes. “Not every person who gets on the board with an agenda is necessarily bad for the association,” says Perkins, a partner in Perkins & Anctil, PC, in Chelmsford, Massachusetts.
“For instance,” says Perkins, a candidate for the board may say, “the parking here is all screwed up. I’m going to get on the board and try to fix it.” The candidate may then go on to fix the parking, which in fact was troublesome, and then go on to help solve a variety of other issues. It’s nothing different than the way democracy works on a larger level. Lots of politicians get involved with politics because they’re upset about one thing or another, he explains.
That doesn’t mean that afterwards they can’t go on to take on larger responsibilities,” he says.
Levy says he sees board members who have an agenda – like reducing common area fees – get on the board and then change their mind about the issue after carefully researching the topic. “They go through the landscaping, they like landscaping. The insurance is fine. The maintenance fee – they don’t like it, but it’s fine. They go through issue by issue, and lo and behold, what they find is they wanted to cut the reserve, but they get more into it and they realize that the reserve contribution is too low.”
In fact, says Levy, some of the candidates who have been most pro “cut the budget” have actually turned out to be the biggest supporters of higher condo fees.
One proven strategy for dealing with board members with agendas is putting them on a committee to studythe problem, says Perkins.
A board being pestered by a board member with small kids who’s clamoring for a playground can say, “We as the board understand that you think this is a problem. We’re going to create a committee and have the committee investigate that and then report back on what they need. Then we’ll check with legal counsel to see what we have to do after that,” says Perkins.
By placing the person with an agenda on the committee, their energy and passion can be put to good use and their demands will usually stop, he says.
However, if the board decides not to build the playground, the demands cancontinue, says Perkins. “The hardest part for the (board) president is when it comes back and they decide not to do what that individual wants to do, and they continue to try to bring it up at every forum. What you do is you tell them, ‘You cannot bring that up any more; it’s out of order. You had your chance, we made a final determination on it. It’s not going to be able to be brought up again.’”
Establish Rules of Order
Perkins says one key to preventing the disgruntled board member from bringing the issue up repeatedly is establishing rules of order – who can speak, how motions can be introduced, and the way that meetings are started and ended.
Some condominiums use “Roberts Rules of Order” to run their board meetings, but Perkins says, “Roberts Rules are heinously complicated” for most condominiums. Instead, he recommends a shorter, easier-to-understand set of rules, such as one available from the Community Associations Institute (CAI), a national organizationthat provides education and resources to homeowner and community associations and its members.
No matter what rules are adopted, Perkins says it’s important that they be followed. “This is how you get on the agenda. This is what a quorum is. We’re going to follow the agenda. In order to speak you need to make a motion. You’ll be able to speak to that motion but your time will be limited to two to three minutes, we’ll then allow everybody else to speak. We’ll take a vote and then move on. Motions have to be seconded before they’re heard.”
The key to any set of rules is that motions to take up an issue – like the playground the member wants – need a second by another board member to be discussed. Without a second of the motion, the issue dies, Perkins says.
On the thorny issue of board members seeking contracts for their relations, Perkins says that “like anyone else, they (the relative) should be allowed to submit a bid.” The key to not letting the board member abuse his or her power, Perkins says, is full, upfront disclosure by the board memberof the relationship with the contract seeker and the board member’s disqualifying him or herself from voting on any bids.
But Levy says many of his boards won’t let relatives of board members bid on contracts at all, on general principle and because fair business practices can be undermined. “I’ve got a situation right now where the guy (a board member’s relative) is calling behind my back, calling the trustees and saying he’s not getting enough information from my staff. So the guy’s trying to get a copy of the other guy’s bid,” he says.
Levy always advises his boards against hiring a relative to do condo work, citing an instance where a board gave a $50,000 painting job to another board member – as that board member’s son needed work at the time.
The son ended up damaging an expensive walkway and Levy demanded it be replaced. After Levy was rebuffed on the replacement, the board membertold Levy, “If you force this issue, I’m going to vote to fire you as a management company.”
Citing that example, Levy asks boards considering hiring relatives, “Do you want a situation where I can’t follow up on a contractor?”
Rogue Board Members
Once in a while, board members don’t settle down after their agendas have been duly considered and not acted on. The result can be a rogue board member, says Perkins. “You can have a board member who’s out there acting catastrophically, taking confidential information and leaking it to members of the community.”
The person who wanted a playground and was turned down can “start putting notices under people’s doors at night. ‘The board is against children. Come to the next board meeting,’ ” he says.
If such a situation happens, says Perkins, “the board has to get a firm hand, take its case to the community, indicate to them in a very rational way that this is what the board has voted to do, that obviously this board member has acted in a way that is outside the board member’s scope. It’s unfortunate that it happened.”
If the board member continues to act up, the board may ultimately have to sanction or remove the board member,he says. Sanctions can involve telling the board member, “Basically we’re not going to let you sit on these issues any more because you don’t respect the process or executive sessions,” says Perkins.
Removal would be reserved as a last option, says Perkins.
Fortunately, if boards give the person with an agenda a chance to work on an issue-related committee or do some research on the topic, in most cases they can outgrow the personal agenda and become an all-around outstandingboard member.
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium magazine. Jim Douglass contributed to this report.