It is one of life’s eternal questions: is it possible to have too much of a good thing? That question certainly can apply to the matter of long-serving board members, those individuals who get elected and re-elected term after term. And like most big questions, there is no easy answer. Every community is different and every board is different. There are, however, a few pros and cons that tend to crop up in nearly every situation where a board has one or two long-term members.
Accentuating the Positive
Perhaps the biggest benefit of having a cadre of seasoned board members overseeing one’s condo or co-op community is the fact that they have unparalleled institutional memory. “In addition to understanding association operations, veteran board members also bring a historical continuity to the board which is critical as boards transition from time to time,” explains Denville-based attorney Judith A. Fallat. “A board with a complete historical perspective can avoid wasting time and money revisiting issues or questions which may have been addressed in the past.”
Audrey Wisotsky, an attorney at Pepper Hamilton LLP in Princeton, agrees saying not only does the veteran board member possess a broad knowledge of the ins and outs of the association, they can recall the minute details. “The board member will have historic and institutional knowledge but also know right off the top of their head if there are amendments to certain documents that address certain issues.” This quick recollection can help expedite meetings and legislative processes.
Wisotsky continues to say that from a consistency point, veteran board members know how certain issues were handled in the past and can provide valuable information in how to deal with similar, present situations, in other words, they know how things work.
Multi-term board members also are important because they can hold down the metaphorical fort when new members join the board. In today’s world, running a co-op or condo community can be like running a small multi-national corporation—the stakes are high with hundreds of units and millions of dollars in play. Having longer serving board members can make the process of running an association smoother and more fluid.
It can take up to a full term for new board members to learn the ins and outs of procedures, bylaws, meeting rules and other details. While they are learning, the more experienced board members can shoulder the burden and at the same time, provide important mentoring opportunities. “Unless newly elected board members have past experience with community associations, they generally face a substantial learning curve about association operations. It is therefore invaluable to have veteran members serving on the board who have already been exposed to the myriad facets of administering an association and serving as fiduciaries,” says Fallat.
In more pragmatic terms, long-serving board members also can help ease whatever difficulties an association may have in recruiting new candidates to seek board positions. Because these positions are voluntary and because they can be so time-consuming, many residents these days choose not to run for leadership positions within their condo or co-op community. That means a fair number of board members may be seeking re-election term after term simply because there is no one else willing to take up the torch. “They are the ones more willing,” says Wisotsky, “to take more key positions because they are more confident in their knowledge of what has to be done.”
Overall, veteran board members possess a familiarity with information and processes and simply have “done time” with the association. “You could read the statutes, you could read books and magazines, but the best experience comes from doing, from actually serving on the board,” says attorney Scott B. Piekarsky of the law firm of Piekarsky & Associates, LLC in Wyckoff. “The co-op, condo and HOA process is very fluid and dynamic, you really need to be out there doing it.”
On the Down Side
Despite the myriad benefits that long-serving board members bring to the table, there are times when that longevity can be a detriment to the community rather than a positive. Fallat says, “If board members never change over time, there is a potential for association matters to be handled perhaps too routinely in areas where a change in operations might be beneficial. Boards can become stagnant and closed to new approaches on the theory that 'it’s always been done that way'.”
“New board members,” says Fallat, “often bring their own personal skills to contribute to the board, and fresh perspectives.”
Wisotsky adds that “it is important to keep all members of the community involved. You have to keep looking to get new blood in there and make sure you have people in there to continue to develop into new positions. That way you can ask 'Are we doing things properly? Do we need to do things differently?'”
In the community, there may be the view that the board is it is own impenetrable entity. “In some cases, there may be a perception that a board has too much control and that the same veterans are just looking at things one way,” says Fallat.
Breaking the Cycle
For any co-op or condo community unhappy with a long-serving member of the board, the easiest solution is simply to vote that person out at the next election. Sometimes, though, that is easier said than done. Board members reluctant to let go of power can make it difficult for their fellow residents to unseat them. Perhaps they promise benefits for those who will vote for them or intimidate those who choose to run against them. When things like that happen on a regular basis, they can become self-perpetuating, with residents believing that there is no way to rid the community of that board member, so they simply stop trying.
Removing a board member can be a very difficult process, says Piekarsky. Some documents may dictate that if someone has a title on the board such as President or Secretary, by a vote of the other board members the title alone can be removed. “But in terms of removing someone completely from the board it is usually a majority or super majority vote by the association and it is a very, very difficult thing to accomplish,” he says.
If worse comes to worse, residents do have recourse to remove board members. “The bylaws contain a provision for board removal. Most instances, if not all instances, it's by vote of the membership as opposed to vote of the other board members. So, it usually is couched in terms of with or without cause, so reasons don't even have to be given. But usually, there is something that provokes that kind of activity, and I've seen it happen many times where there has been some kind of fracture in the community and the entire boards are replaced,” explains Fallat.
Fallat cautions against replacing the entire board at the same time, however. “In my experience, the replacement of an entire board by inexperienced members uneducated in association administration typically results in a disservice to the association,” she says.
Changing the Rules
Just as in federal, state and local governments, the debate on term limits arises from time to time. According to Piekarsky, New Jersey does not have term limits for board members and he says that few if any associations do. “You might have to constantly rerun but there aren't term limits that you could only serve on a board for 'x' number of years,” he says.
While there is no state law regulating term limits, it may be possible for an association to amend its by-laws and institute them for their own community. “You would put the proposition to a homeowner vote and then amend the governing documents,” says Piekarsky.
Perhaps the most effective way to ensure that all board members serve to the best of their ability no matter how many times they have been re-elected is for unit owners and shareholders to be vigilant in their own oversight. By attending meetings, reading minutes, scanning financials and keeping up with any and all correspondence coming from the board, residents can help keep their community on the right track and their board members functioning to the best of their abilities.
Wisotsky says that a good way to involve residents is to create committees, which will ease their way into how the association operates. “The best way to develop Board members is to get them involved on a committee. Hopefully they feel more comfortable being involved and develop the skills that give them the confidence. It's making the connection.”
Often, residents may have misconceptions about the time commitment and responsibilities of various positions and this lack of knowledge can be intimidating. “Current boards need to take the time to explain to the community what the roles of board members are and explain that the community will not continue to be a strong community or that things will not change if residents don't make the commitment to get involved,” says Wisotsky.
And for residents who perhaps are dissatisfied with aspects of their community and the way it is being run, they can make sure they vote in their board elections and get others to vote as well. Or, they can even take up the baton and run themselves, bringing fresh perspective and new energy in service to their fellow residents.
Thankfully, the benefits of having committed and long-serving members of the board seem to far outweigh the cons. There is no doubt that the role of a board member has gotten increasingly complex and time-consuming in recent decades, requiring an significant energy, skill and experience to be successful. It can be a difficult load for new board members to bear. That is why boards that have that institutional memory in the form of long-serving members often flourish, finding that perfect balance between experience and innovation.
Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator. Editorial Assistant Maggie Puniewska contributed to this article.