You may love your condo community. You may even love your neighbors and the members of your board of trustees. But there are few people who can say that they love their monthly board meetings or annual condo owner meetings. That’s because these meetings can drag on for hours, making even the most ardent condo association booster feel like they're an exercise in time-wasting. Still others watch their board and unit owner meetings devolve into pointless shouting matches, complete with name-calling.
Board meetings in every building—small and large, co-op and condo, townhouse, studio and triple decker—get out of hand. Issues are heated, lots of money is at stake and there are many of people with tons of different ideas of how their building community should be run.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Boards, unit owners and committees can improve the quality and productivity of their meetings very easily with a few simple guidelines.
Like so many other things, meetings are often doomed before they even start, thanks to poor planning (or no planning at all). One of the most common problems that bogs down a board or committee meeting is when a board member or trustee arrives and is not prepared for the meeting—or if the management didn’t give the board enough information to make informed decisions or enough time to review the information prior to the meeting. If at all possible, board members and trustees should be given all the information about the meeting and everything that has to do with the meeting at the earliest date and time possible. And it’s the board member’s or trustee’s obligation to take their position seriously and to review all documents prior to the meeting.
The law says that unit owners need to have a 48-hour notice before a meeting, but most management companies give everyone a full week whenever possible. Managers suggest putting the agenda out as soon as they get the meeting notice so that the owners have the time to digest what will be discussed and will make sure to be there if the subject matter to be discussed is important to them. Board members and trustees also have to take the responsibility of reviewing the agenda seriously.
“Board members have to be updated on all the issues, and be prepared to explain why things need to be done, and talk about particular projects. The board members should ask questions prior to the meeting, and go over the issues so they're prepared ahead of time,” says Steven Hornsby, president of HM Management in Newton, Massachusetts. If board members and trustees are asking questions that should have been asked in the days before, the meeting can drag on much longer than needed.
For board of trustee meetings, the agenda is the closest thing to an HOA's sacred text. Stay to your agenda and be prepared for the meeting. Most monthly board meetings should only last an hour to an hour and a half,” says Scott Barbera, director of management services at Harvard Management Solutions in Merrimack, New Hampshire. “Staying focused and being prepared will allow you more than enough time to run the business of the association. Meeting materials should be issued to the board at least three to four days in advance of the meeting. This will allow a board and its members sufficient time to review the information and time to ask questions a day or two prior to the meeting, should they have any. This will allow for questions to be answered and allows for additional time to prepare information to be presented at the meeting, if needed,” he says.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
A common source of conflict and complication involves the role of unit owners, and how much time and freedom they are allowed to participate in board meetings.
“It's a board meeting, not a meeting of unit owners. Typically in Massachusetts, unit owners have no right to attend a board meeting, and no right to speak even if they do attend, unless called upon by the board,” says Patrick Brady, an attorney at the law firm of Marcus, Errico, Emmer & Brooks, P.C. in Braintree, Massachusetts.
“My advice to boards is that they should conduct their general meetings in the open. They should allow unit owners to attend the meetings and observe the trustee meetings. However, the unit owners have no right to speak or interrupt the meeting unless the board wants to take comments from the floor. The meetings are for trustees to handle the association's business, and not to turn it into a unit owner annual meeting every time there's a monthly board meeting,” he says.
A simple way to quash a problem prior to it becoming an issue would be to clearly explain the rules to the group before the meeting begins, and also to explain why each decision and choice is made throughout the meeting. Sometimes, however, by the time someone in the group remembers that this is a condo board meeting, it’s too late, and it’s already gotten out of control and may have become combative.
Certainly topics open for discussion should be on the agenda, rather than be random, and must be focused on the issues at hand. Moreover, it's not a chance for unit owners to start a griping session—boards shouldn't really allow owners to complain about other owners, board of trustee members, or higher assessments.
Instead, contentious issues like that should be reserved for a different process. Brady says that boards should know when to conduct business in front of unit owners for the sake of transparency, and when to use closed-door sessions. “There are some misconceptions on what should be in a closed session. When you're consulting with the association's attorney, and discussing any litigation. Reviewing personal information such as delinquent homeowners. Also with contracts; it's hard to negotiate when your position is known. It'd be hard to get a good deal if someone is in the building and knows the snow plower. Everything else should be in public. Your final vote would be in a regular meeting,” he says.
All About Robert’s Rules
This type of meeting disorder isn’t something that only happens in condo board meetings. In the 1800s, Henry Martyn Robert had been an engineering officer in the Army when he was asked to preside over a public meeting. It didn’t end well, and he was determined to figure out how to prevent anarchy from occurring during future meetings.
He ended up writing Robert’s Rules of Order, which is a manual for parliamentary law that’s now in its 11th edition. There is a simpler version that can be used to run board meetings—and short of following a book’s procedures, there should be some form of structure. While parliamentary procedures can work, the strictest use of Robert’s Rules are not really necessary for a board meeting. “In the back of my head, Robert’s Rules are always going on. I try to stick to them as much as possible,” says Hornsby.
And while Robert’s Rules of Order may be too restrictive for some condo associations and co-op boards, it would be helpful for boards and managers to read through the book to adopt a process related to and adopted from Robert’s Rules. Anything that prevents havoc, keeps order and sticks to the agenda at hand will do the job. Specific details such as calling a meeting to order, having a format for minute-taking, a process to obtain a vote on expenditures and for an agenda and other procedures—should have a detailed format from which the board and all the future boards will follow.
Consistency in the length of a meeting is also important. Hornsby says that unsuccessful board meetings have the quality of simply “not being organized, and they pretty much open the floor to every question and every issue all at once, and it's total chaos. I always try to set it up so there's a section at the end for questions or comments, but as a property manager, try to focus the conversation on the goal, rather than just have the same thing repeated over and over again,” he says.
Even when meetings come to a close, the job of managers and board members is not done. Now that many associations have their own websites, most managers subsequently publish the prior month's meeting minutes there so unit owners who were not able to attend the meeting can catch up and stay informed. “Transparency is important because it can eliminate a lot of doubt and trust issues. Promptly posting minutes and having informative newsletters are simple and effective ways to keep residents informed,” says David Bongiovanni, who is the president of New Hampshire-based Harvard Management Solutions.
Follow the Rules
Think you can skip the rules if you have a small building? Think again. In fact, smaller building meetings can implode faster because the problems get to the surface sooner, so the better organized it is, the safer it is.
Smaller buildings are also similar to smaller schools or smaller offices where everyone knows each other—so gossiping and small talk is bound to slow meetings down. If there are rules, boundaries and laws in order to keep the meeting running efficiently, it would be better for everyone involved.
During the meeting, it’s very important that the secretary take good minutes so that all project details can be followed from meeting to meeting. This saves time at subsequent meetings so that no time is wasted trying to remember what was decided the previous month.
Danielle Braff is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium. Editorial Assistant Tom Lisi contributed to this article.