When we elect our neighbors to serve on our Boards we expect them to be positive and professionals guardians of our property, common areas, HOA finances and also help resolve any neighbor-to-neighbor disputes.
We do not elect them to become bullies, corrupted by their power – yet sometimes that is exactly what happens. Sometimes it happens because the power has gone to the heads of specific board members, other times it feels as though they have forgotten we are friends and neighbors and respond to any problems as though we were enemies to be treated as criminals. In the later cases, I believe it is because they take the advice of overly-legalistic property managers and/or attorneys.
Other areas that separate the “controlling” boards from the “managing” boards is how decisions are made. In a controlling board, the budget is both created and approved by the board, as are decisions regarding the use of the common areas, the pool, etc. In a “managing” board, issues are brought before the homeowner’s for discussion and vote.
This is particularly true of the budget – which in a managing board is submitted at least a week before the annual meeting, is discussed at the annual meeting, revised if necessary, and voted upon by the community.
Here are some common examples of issues that occur in most complexes – and the methods to resolve them by controlling boards – and suggestions for how they can be resolved by friendly managing boards.
Board as Bully Examples
One common example of what I am terming “board as bully” is when a homeowner comes to the monthly meeting wanting to ask for help and/or express a concern and is told that they have to submit a form in advance and since they did not submit that form they could not speak. Now, if we were a huge government agency with hundreds of people clamoring to speak at each meeting I could see taking this position. But, for most of us, we are friends and neighbors and only a few of us at a time come to the meeting to voice our concerns.
What’s a better way? Of course, allow that person to speak, and if the issue is one that requires further research, advance notification to others, or anything that actually requires deferring the matter to a later time, after they’ve had their say, politely tell them what action will have to be deferred and what to expect.
Another issue, also related to members of the community wanting to have their say before the board, occurs when the agenda is set so that the time allotted to community members is very brief and only at the end of the meeting. This forces anyone to have to sit out the business of the community, about which they cannot have a say, only to be given a minute or two to speak.
Is the time of the board members so valuable that they can’t spare time to listen to the concerns of their neighbors? I think not. I would much prefer to have the meetings more open and available to everyone. If a lot of people are there trying to speak, perhaps there does need to be a time limit so everyone can have a chance. Otherwise, I suggest letting it take the time it needs for someone to make their point and have extensive discussion among the rest of the people in attendance.
I’ve also seen boards change the vote of the community. Two examples:
· At an earlier annual meeting a community voted to keep the swimming pool open from (people swim laps before going to work) to (people use the spa before going to bed). Some years later the new president of the board, who lived near the spa, decided he didn’t like the noise and so without bringing it back to the members of the association, arbitrarily changed the rules to suit his time frame.
· A complex decided at an annual meeting to have a two year term limit for its board members. Ten years later a man, who had no professional status of his own, became president of the board and changed the rules to suit himself. He served as president of the HOA for five or six years.
You might ask: How do people get away with these changes? The answer: apathy. Most homeowner’s say they do not want to “make waves” and it is better to just ignore these things. They allow the bullies to bully.
Neighbor to Neighbor Issues
When people live in communities they are often living close to each other and they don’t necessarily have perfectly compatible values or behaviors. Sometimes they actually rub each other the wrong way – and resort to complaining to the board.
Typically the response of the board is to have the property management staff send a formal notice about the complaint, threatening sanctions if the action occurs again. This of course assumes guilt – contrary to our belief that people are innocent until proven guilty.
What’s a better way?
¨ Make no assumptions about guilt or innocence. We have a tendency to believe the first person who comes to us – they are not necessarily telling us the whole story – merely their personal slant on it. Do not take sides.
¨ Ask the complaining neighbor if he or she has discussed it with the person they are reporting. If they have not, suggest they do so before bringing a formal complaint against that person.
¨ Offer to mediate a dispute between these neighbors so that goodwill could be restored.
¨ Talk, in a friendly manner to the people involved trying to help them find a solution – this is called conciliation.
¨ If all else fails, suggest they go for formal mediation.
Petition for Exception to the Board
What happens when an owner comes to the board to explain that they just lost their job and will be unable to pay their monthly HOA dues for a few months until they have a new job?
In controlling boards, they are fined, found to be in arrears, and liens are placed on their property. Once a lien has been placed on someone’s property, it affects their credit and can even harm their potential for employment. Unfortunately, too many property managers advise that the board must take this formal and punitive action because otherwise they are “playing favorites.”
I don’t agree that this is always the proper action to take. Sure, if the homeowner has been in default many times in the past, is very new to the complex and unknown to be reliable and responsible, or has a criminal record, the board might have no recourse but to file a lien.
But, if the homeowner is someone who has lived in the complex for a while, has always paid their dues on time, and can be trusted – why not trust them? Why not make an exception and give them a three to six month extension on their dues?
The rationale for not making exceptions is the statement that the board must be fair and equitable. But fair and equitable does not mean – nor has it ever meant – treating everyone exactly the same. We treat people as they deserve to be treated in almost all other situations, don’t we?
Even in a court of law there are factors in mitigation and factors in aggravation, with the court having a range of sanctions available to them.
Summary and Conclusions
Just as managers manage differently in the business world, board members manage their responsibilities in HOAs differently – sometimes because of their personal personalities and values – but more often because of the advice they receive from overly-cautious attorneys and property managers.
Yet HOA Boards are dealing with their friends and neighbors and there are more comfortable and friendly ways to handle decisions and solve problems. My vote is to:
· Remember that kindness, understanding, and courtesy go a long way – a much longer way – than threats and sanctions.
· When decisions need to be made, it is much better to allow those who have a stake in the results of the decision to have plenty of time for discussion and even vote.
Finally, do what’s right – not what the bullies want, or the majority decides. Remember, some of our forefather’s warned us about “The Tyranny of the Majority.”