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Q&A: Can We Talk?

Q. I am a new condo owner. The way the trustees do business does not seem correct to me. First, they will not allow owners to communicate directly with them or the condo’s accountants. Every communication must be sent to the one employee of the trust. The employee seems to be more qualified to see to maintenance items. Also there is an escrow account on the Trust’s balance sheet, with an offsetting liability in the same amount. They refuse to explain the nature of the account. Does this seem normal?

                        —Feeling Disconnected

A. “Association boards vary greatly in how they communicate with their unit owners,” says Thomas O. Moriarty, a principal and founding member of the law firm of Moriarty Troyer & Malloy LLC in Braintree, Massachusetts. “Some trustees take calls at home or on their cell phones and receive and respond to emails from their personal computers.  Other boards adopt a more formal approach. The decision can sometimes be one of personal preference, but in some instances more formal and focused direction of communication may be the only way to effectively manage those communications. 

“One can imagine how difficult it would be to track and respond to unit owner communications in a 400-unit association with a seven member board if every board member accepted and responded to communications independently. The most critical factor to consider is not how the communication is required to be directed, but whether the communication is effective. Admittedly, when barriers are placed – even with good reason – that prevent direct communication, it can raise legitimate questions with owners about whether their concerns are being heard. Associations that limit communications in such manner should be careful to ensure that there are mechanisms in place not only to respond to contacts, but to ensure that unit owners feel they have a means of expressing themselves to their elected board. Nothing is more sure to sow seeds of discontent than an owner who feels their concerns are not being heard by their board. Open meetings, posting of meeting minutes, maintaining a website are all ways to open lines of communication even where direct communication is funneled through a single point person. 

“The question of access to the accountant is more straightforward. The accountant works for and is paid by the board. The board must be in a position to control and direct the activities of the professionals it hires, including the accountant. Allowing unit owners to communicate directly with the accountant would prevent the board from containing its costs. The accountant, like any of the board’s professionals, does not work without charge. It would be an unmanageable situation for the accountant to have to respond to the direct inquiries of the unit owners. There appears to me nothing odd about that restriction.  

“One should expect the board to be transparent with regard to the association’s financials.  The statute simply requires an association to maintain financial records and make those records available for inspection; it does not require the board to explain the financial records. However, the failure or refusal of a board to willingly detail the purpose of any open accounts or any line item on the financial statement would be enough to raise concern.  It is quite possible that in a larger association, the financials may be beyond the ability of the lay members of the board to explain.  In such circumstance, while not required, it would be reasonable for a unit owner to expect that the board, which controls the activities of their accountant, to direct their accountant to provide the necessary explanation. In the event a satisfactory explanation is not provided a unit owner could demand access to the records and have its own analysis done or express his or her dissatisfaction with the board’s conduct at the next election.”

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