Today more ways to communicate exist than ever before: Cell phones, email, social networking sites such as Facebook, blogs, video call systems like Skype, online chat forums, microblogging services such as Twitter, websites, and virtual inspiration boards like Pinterest top the list. Yet, even with a myriad of choices for information sharing, one of the biggest complaints conveyed by condominium residents is the appearance of opacity among condominium and home owner association (HOA) boards.
Communication is Key
According to Ashish Patel, president of Pilera, a property management software company in Nashua, New Hampshire, “Typically, people today appreciate knowing all they can.” In fact, Attorney Mary-Joy Howes of the law firm of Goodman, Shapiro & Lombardi, LLC in Lincoln, Rhode Island, says, “The very essence of a community association is community,” and good communication within any community is imperative.
Fortunately, clear and transparent communication among condominium boards, management and residents is easier to achieve than it has ever been. Invisible Mail, known as iMail, allows recipients to exchange messages in a secure and untraceable way.
Though mysterious sounding, Jim Toscano, president of Property Management of Andover, Massachusetts, explains, “iMail is just a fancy name for communicating with residents through email. We can send emails to the residents on behalf of the boards which remind them about upcoming meetings or convey information which needs immediate attention or provide needed attachments.”
Attorney Pamela M. Jonah, who is with Goodman, Shapiro & Lombardi's offices in Dedham we are noticing community association boards increasing their use of the Internet through the creation of interactive websites for the disseminating of information and notices.”
The advantages of iMail communication via email and website are numerous. “One, the information is more timely for the day-to-day events,” says Toscano. “As well, email is a benefit to people because they get additional pieces of information they might not from a simple phone message, and as you can imagine, expenses for postage have gone down dramatically.” Howes adds, “The speed of email is very advantageous when it comes to running a community association—which is like a mini-government. Email can make it easier to reach someone who travels often and can allow absentee unit owners to conveniently take part in the process either by voting or otherwise. Email can also be a good ‘back up’ to written notice.”
She further says that “associations which have websites with secure owner log-ons are great, too, because people who are very digital can contact board members and mangers in that manner if they prefer, and a webpage is a good place to post the association’s condo docs and rules for easy access.”
Go to the Worldwide Web
Patel is enthusiastic about the many more benefits to utilizing web portals and websites. Boards or property managers can “selectively choose to send a message to an entire community or to one particular condominium floor or to several different condominium units for things like a localized water shut off or community fire alarm testing or carpets being replaced only in select units.” People can also receive the information in their language of choice, since Pilera currently supports over 50 different languages. In addition, “people can make service requests for maintenance or look up their account balance or send an email to a board member at more convenient off-hours.” Furthermore, management can schedule ahead of time when messages should be sent so they don’t have to worry about calling people on a Sunday night, and they can archive every piece of communication at both a community and personal level so they have a complete history.
It’s important, though, “to be transparent while maintaining the privacy rights of other unit owners and while not causing confusion within the community,” warns Jonah. How much communication is too much should always be considered. Patel says, “We don’t get complaints about receiving ‘too much’ information,” but Toscano believes that “whatever comes down the pike needs to be investigated to make sure it’s actually needed. You should make sure it’s not redundant.” He explains that websites are great for putting up as much community information as possible for residents to have access to, but that emails should only contain pertinent need-to-know information which can point residents to the website for more information.” Howes points out, though, that “the board is allowed a degree of confidentiality so as to properly perform its function”—so a balance is needed between “preserving the board’s right to confidential communications and preventing accusations that the board is operating in secret.”
Jonah adds that “sometimes, too much information to the community before the board has made a board decision can cause unnecessary grief, though boards differ on how much information, not otherwise required to be communicated, they wish to volunteer on a regular basis.”
Public vs. Private
What exactly is required communication and what should not be public? State laws usually require condominium associations to maintain records of any documents generated and meeting minutes kept, and all records must be accessible to condominium unit owners when asked. What associations must communicate beyond that, however, varies and may or may not be outlined in the governing bylaws of the associations. What is in agreement by all is that what is most important is to not make public any information which should be private.
Toscano explains that “executive session meeting minutes are usually not made public” and that “information governed by privacy laws do not allow for distribution of information such as personal delinquency reports about owing funds.”
In fact, Jonah says, “Because of privacy issues and concerns over possible violations of the Federal Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, we recommend that specific names of individuals or unit numbers in arrears should not be shared with the community at large.” She further clarifies, too, that “during litigation it is important for the board to recognize that much of what is happening may fall under the attorney-client privilege, and they may owe a duty to the Trust not to disclose litigation strategy, and certainly, they should not be disclosing the advice of their attorney or confidential conversations.” Howes adds that “if a unit owner is given a reasonable accommodation for a disability, the board could face liability if it discloses the underlying disability” and Patel notes that “certain laws also apply to anything fine-related or having to do with rule violations which require written publication as opposed to emailed information,” and that managers and boards need to be sensitive to those particular issues.
Exactly who is making the decision about what to communicate may vary, though. Some HOA boards use software like Pilera to maintain communication themselves with condominium owners and residents, while other boards decide to leave the responsibility of communication to the staff of their property management companies. Either way, “Most condominium documents do not speak specifically to the use of the Internet or emails,” says Jonah, “so, absent a specific prohibition or a specific clause requiring a certain meeting in person or notices to be mailed by a specific mode such as mail or with return receipts, it appears that both should be able to use email and even Skype to meet or communicate.” It is important, though, says Howes, to “make sure all unit owners are involved in the process equally—or at least have the opportunity to be. In a community that allows electronic communication, there should always be a provision that allows non-techie unit owners to receive written notice so that they are not ‘cut out’ of the process.”
Fortunately for condominium owners and residents who prefer “old school” methods, Toscano affirms that property managers and boards of trustees still hand-deliver notes under the door, post notices on community boards, mail important documents to the units, and use phone messaging systems in addition to the more modern technological communication. In fact, he says that if “something needs more immediate attention like a snowplow coming in the middle of a storm or if the power is out, calling people’s phones is still a good way to communicate with them.” Also, as an added benefit to non-techie people, according to Patel, “residents can choose how to be communicated with by our system. Web portals allow management companies and HOAs to send out announcements via email, phone call or text, and the system knows whom to call, whom to text, and whom to send an email to.”
Jonah, Patel, Howes, and Toscano all agree that whether by phone or online options, communication plays a significant role between condominium boards or property managers and the residents and owners. Patel gives the example of a phone “blast” alerting residents in one condominium association to an untimely water main break on Christmas day as a good use of communication, while Howes cites “poor communication as the catalyst for heated association elections that can often result in defamation suits.” Jonah explains that an interactive website provided unit owners with a lot of information during a “take-over” which turned distrust and anger into more harmonious living, and Toscano says that clear, documented communication “kept everyone in the right” so that when someone said “he ‘didn’t know’ about something, there was proof that he should have.”
When it comes to communication, George Bernard Shaw was right: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” For condominium boards and property managers, both older and newer “technologies” remove any excuse for lack of communication. Notices, phone calls, email, and more mean that for today’s condominium owners and residents, communication can be a reality and not an illusion.
Paula Castner is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium.