Q&A: Communicating With the Board

Q. The way our trustees operate seems a little unusual to me. They won’t allow us condo owners to speak or communicate with them or the accountants directly unless it’s through an employee of the trust. Additionally, there is an escrow account on the trust’s balance sheet with an offsetting liability in the same amount. They will not discuss the circumstances of that account. Is this weird?

                   —Sensing Something’s Amiss

A. “Association boards vary greatly in how they communicate with their unit owners, says Thomas O. Moriarty, a principal at the law firm of Moriarty Troyer & Malloy LLC, which has offices in Boston and Braintree, Massachusetts. “Some trustees take calls at home or on their cell phones and receive and respond to e-mails from their personal computers. Others 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 which prevent direct communication, even with good reason, it can raise a legitimate question with an owner about whether their concerns are being heard. Associations that limit communications in such manner should be careful to ensure that there are mechanism in place not only to respond to contacts but to ensure that unit owners feel that they have a means of expressing themselves to their elected board. Nothing is more sure to sow seeds of discontent than an owner that feels his or her concerns are not being heard by the association’s 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 straight-forward. The accountant works for the board 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 its accountant, to direct its 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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