Board Members for Life Pros and Cons of Long-Term Service

 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.  


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