The headline of a recent Walpole, Massachusetts newspaper article reads: “Fight between Walpole selectmen cuts meeting short.” The first sentence of the article stated, “Selectmen came to verbal blows on Tuesday night, prompting other board members to cut the meeting short as two of their colleagues took the altercation outside.”
Board Meetings Gone Wild
It sounds like it could have been from an episode of a fictitious reality show entitled ‘Board Meetings Gone Wild,’ where viewers watch meetings that are out of control, overlong, unproductive or, as in this case, downright hostile. Even comedian Dave Barry said of meetings, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings.'”
The scary part is that this is reality. In some cases, board meetings turn into ‘verbal blows’ and, in some extreme cases, physical confrontations. Board meetings can get very heated. Different ideas, differences of opinion and different agendas can cause so much stress in a meeting where people want to give their opinions, solve problems, make decisions, vote and get back home to their families. As a result, board meetings should have a protocol or policy in place for when things get a little tense and tempers start to flare out of control.
Jill Dennard has been a trustee of her condo association’s board since 2011. She describes some of their monthly board meetings as ‘contentious,’ but stops far short from comparing them to a Jerry Springer-type battle with punches and chairs flying across the room.
“However, it’s stressful to go to board meetings with your armor on,” she says. “Nobody is going to sucker-punch you, but the stress and anxiety is enough. It doesn’t give you motivation to stay on the board. I don’t think board members are appreciated, though.”
Dennard explains that, unfortunately, members volunteer with an agenda and their own points of view that can get in a way of getting business done.
In his book, “The Perfect Board,” author Calvin Clemens writes, “The Perfect Board” is probably a goal that can never be reached. “Given the manner in which people work with one another, it is doubtful that consistent harmony can be achieved,” he writes. “But maybe that is the goal. Working together, moving the organization forward, instead of individual or selfish pursuits.”
“Life in an association is not idyllic,” says Dennard. “People have different agendas; different points of view and they don’t work on compromise. How productive meetings are all comes down to the board’s skill set. I work on a corporate skill set. In my job, I’m required to put in my point of view, but moderate and compromise to get my goal accomplished. A lot of board members don’t have those skill sets. There are some who are so inexperienced and unqualified, they haven’t even taken care of money or handled a balance sheet.”
Sometimes, however, a board member is skilled at what they do, but perhaps just tired after a long, hard day. For example, board member Johnny just got home from a long day at work. His boss is annoyed with sales and took it out on Johnny. He worked overtime, caught the train home and ran to the meeting, but would rather be with his wife and kids, not at the meeting. He’s ready to vote on anything, but gets testy when Sallie Doright wants to discuss more of the issue in great detail. The meeting lasts even longer when Johnny and Sallie start to argue. It might have helped to know about Johnny’s day ahead of time, but personal lives should be kept out of the meeting. There’s work to do.
In comparison, Dennard knows what it’s like to be on a board where things run smoothly. “I’m on an advisory board for my town and it runs in a much more parliamentary fashion,” she says. “We have agenda and stick to it—that’s critical.”
Dennard says that she lives in the most beautiful area in a unit that provides her with stunning ocean views and a panoramic view of the Atlantic. “I still get that feeling that I have to catch my breath when I realize where I live; I like living here,” she says.
She says however, that it’s just the meetings she isn’t happy with, but she’s afraid to leave her trustee position. “My fear is that if I step aside, I won’t see, or have a chance to see, what’s happening behind the scenes financially,” says Dennard. “There are red flags when I see things that don’t make sense. We are here to watch the money on behalf of the owners and make sure we take care of the property. Our condo fees have doubled over the last ten years.”
Attorney Clive D. Martin, counsel at the law firm of Robinson & Cole, LLP in Boston, Massachusetts says that preventing meetings from hell starts with the basics of actually creating the meeting. “The time of each meeting will depend on the length and complexity of the agenda,” he says, “But inevitably participants’ attention begins to ebb after an hour or so, and if the board has regular meetings, I think a one-hour meeting is an attainable goal.”
He also says that the time of the day of the meeting is also important. “It depends, of course, on the convenience of the participants, but in my experience morning meetings are a lot more efficient because people are focused and want to get to work; evening meetings invariably drag on late (in addition to which people are tired or may be delayed in getting there),” he says.
To ensure that a board president and manager keep the meeting moving along, Martin has a simple two-word piece of advice: “Listen carefully,” he says. “When it comes to sticking to the agenda, it entirely depends on the chairperson asserting his/her authority to keep to the agenda, skip irrelevancies, focus the debate, and keep matters moving.”
The type of meeting doesn’t matter; these guidelines apply everywhere, otherwise chaos can ensue. A few years ago in Birmingham, Alabama, a school board meeting ended up with police reports being filed when one board member punched another.
One way to guide a potentially Boards Gone Wild meeting back onto a productive path may be to consult “Robert’s Rules of Order,” a classic work of wisdom that has been helping keep parliamentary procedures on track for more than a century. Robert’s Rules are simple: they spell out in explicit detail how to run a meeting, form the proper way of introducing a new item of business, vote on it, and close the floor for discussion. However, not every board uses the guidebook. “Robert’s as a guide to parliamentary debate can be too detailed and picayune for the typical condo board meeting,” says Martin. “There are many resources on the Internet on how to run a condo board meeting.”
Martin advises all boards to start reading the condo documents. “Check the documents to see if owners or residents are allowed to even attend board meetings,” he says. “For example, in Massachusetts if there’s nothing in the docs, there is nothing in law to provide that meetings must be open. However, a condominium is a representative democracy and in my opinion, the unit owners should be allowed to see their governing board functioning, whether the condo docs specifically allow for it or not.”
However, he says that the right to attend a board meeting is not the same as a right to speak. “Only if the docs specifically allow owners to participate in board meetings would I agree to owners speaking,” he says. “If, however, owners are heard from at the open board meeting, there should either be a time limit for each speaker or an overall limit on the time for owner input. Both require strong chairperson authority to shut speakers off if they go over time. The chairperson has the ultimate ability to declare the meeting closed when all agenda items are covered.”
Surprises are good for birthday parties, wedding and baby announcements and flash mobs. They aren’t good for board meetings. “There should be no total surprises at a meeting,” says Martin. “The debate is limited to the agenda, which is set in advance and known to all participants. If it is an open meeting, the board can require questions to be put in writing and submitted in advance.”
Occasionally, you may have to deal with a comment, or two, from one condo resident to another that is racially or culturally offensive. Comments like this can create tension between homeowners. A manager or board’s job is to evaluate each conflict and try to come up with a solution that works for both sides. For example, one solution might be to write an article in the association newsletter or on the website that explains a culture in more detail, thereby opening dialogue between residents and gaining a better understanding of the various cultures or ethnicities in the community.
What’s Dennard’s advice, from one board member to another, to help to make board meetings go more smoothly? “Prepare yourself before you go in,” she says. “We get a financial package. I ask them to send that a week in advance. I work full-time so I want time to look it over. It makes it go smoother. Have questions ready. You can get in and out a lot faster.”
In the book, “Community Associations: A Guide to Successful Management,” by Stephen R. Barber, CPM and Vickie Gaskill, CPM, the authors suggest several tips to make a board meeting more productive. One important one: “Enforce ground rules.” They write, “For example, use courtesy, let one person speak at a time, allow no interruptions and have no ridiculing of another person’s opinion. Members frequently show up for meetings simply because they have a passion for one particular issue. If the president has established some basic ground rules at the beginning of the meeting, he or she will have the support of the majority of participants when the time comes to intercede and close the discussion.”
Dave Barry made a joke about meetings, but the bottom line is that board meetings are no laughing matter and need to be organized, efficient and effective.
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium.