No one likes to feel left out or ignored. Sometimes that is how co-op and condo residents may feel if they believe their board or managers are not responding to their requests for information or sharing enough up front. What they may not realize, however, is that there can be important reasons for discretion on the part of board members and managers. Keeping the lines of communication open and clear can help eliminate those misunderstandings and help establish a healthy level of trust between everyone involved.
When Questions Come
Significant lengths of time between a resident making an inquiry and a board or manager responding to that initial inquiry can cause friction before the main matter of the inquiry is ever even addressed. The resident may feel that his request has not been received, or worse yet, has been ignored as insignificant. Before long, that individual can start sharing his frustrations with neighbors and friends, leading to a less-than-sterling reputation for board and manager, and an overall morale problem that can be corrosive for the whole community.
Sometimes the delay is simply a reflection of the type of question involved. For example, if the question is technical in nature or requires board discussion, it's absolutely appropriate for the board to consult an expert, or convene a meeting (in person, online, or by phone) before rendering an official response.
That said however, no matter how much time may be needed to properly answer a question or respond to a grievance, it is important to issue some sort of response as soon as possible, just so the resident knows they've been heard, and that the board is working on it. “We like to get back to everyone immediately,” says one management pro. “We don’t want them to think that they’re being ignored.”
Bram Fierstein, president and co-founder of Gramatan Management, Inc. in New Rochelle, New York agrees. “Questions should be responded to as quickly as possible. It is best to acknowledge a question via email or telephone to inform the resident that the matter is being considered and you will get back to them with an answer.”
This immediate response can prevent some potential frustrations before they start. “Answers to questions sometimes require board input or legal input,” says Fierstein. “This can cause a delay. In today’s world, residents often expect immediate gratification. This is not always possible but acknowledging their inquiry and informing them that they will get a response is extremely important.”
Inquiries usually can be broken down into two categories: emergencies and non-emergencies, each with their own frame of proper response time. “Emergencies should be responded to immediately,” says Fierstein. “Non-emergencies should receive an acknowledgment within 24 hours.”
Once a request for information has been acknowledged, the next step is putting together a response. Sometimes the request is a simple one and can be handled on the spot or just with a phone call. In other instances, if the resident’s request is more unusual or requires the input of other experts, it may take more time and consideration to formulate the correct response.
“We always encourage our boards to be as communicative and informative as they can with their residents,” says Donna R. Shahrabani, a partner at the law firm of Buckalew Frizzell & Crevina, LLP in Glen Rock. “Just so that they feel not only that they actually have a say in what's going on...but so that they don't think that something is going on that isn't.”
There are important boundaries to set, however. “The danger of people talking about board issues outside of a board meeting is you might be overheard divulging confidential information, or telling someone something that's not actually the board's official position,” Shahrabani continues. “And people may rely on that information and make certain decisions based on it, when it's actually not really what the board decided in the first place.”
In New Jersey, the New Jersey Condominium Act, the Planned Real Estate Development Full Disclosure Act (PREDFDA), the Non-Profit Corporation Act, and the Cooperative Recording Act, generally lay out the provisions governing most condominiums and cooperative boards and associations in the Garden State. Unit owners have the right to inspect books and records under certain conditions, and there are only a few exceptions where meetings are not open to attendance by all, according to New Jersey attorney Gregory M. Dyer. Dyer was formerly a partner at the Newark-based law firm of McCarter & English, LLP.
“With certain exceptions, all meetings of an association’s governing board are required to be open to attendance by all unit owners and shareholders,” says Dyer. “Informal conference or working sessions of the board at which no binding votes are to be taken are not required to be open to all unit owners. In addition, the board may exclude or restrict unit owner attendance at those meetings, or portions of meetings (often referred to as 'closed sessions' or 'executive sessions'), that deal with certain subjects, which may be summarized as follows: (1) matters which should not be disclosed due to individual privacy concerns; (2) any pending or anticipated litigation or contract negotiations; (3) any matters falling within the attorney-client privilege; or (4) any matter involving the employment, promotion, discipline or dismissal of a specific officer or employee of the association,” he states.
And, he adds, “if the board meeting does not deal with one of these subjects and is not merely a working session, then it is required to be open to all unit owners. The requirements for open meetings and the exceptions thereto are set forth in the New Jersey Condominium Act, which applies to the condominium form of ownership, and in The Planned Real Estate Development Full Disclosure Act, the provisions of which may apply not only to condominiums but to homeowners associations and cooperatives as well.”
Wait a Minute
Meeting notice is also spelled out in the law and also in an individual condominium or HOA’s bylaws.
“All unit owners must be given adequate notice of any open meeting (in such manner as the bylaws shall prescribe),” Dyer says. “Minutes of each open meeting must be taken, and copies of those minutes must be made available to all unit owners before the next open meeting. Open meetings must be held in a suitable meeting room within the development or, if there is no suitable meeting room within the development, at a suitable meeting room elsewhere in the municipality in which the development is located or in an adjoining municipality. To be considered 'suitable,' a meeting room must be large enough to accommodate a reasonable number of unit owners who might wish to attend an open meeting.
“The participation of unit owners during open meetings, including their ability to make comments, is at the discretion of the governing board,” continues Dyer. “Thus, a board may decide that it will not allow unit owners to make comments or ask questions at an open meeting. However, most association boards do provide for an open comment or question and answer session at open meetings attended by unit owners.”
Keeping the Channels Open
Despite some of the limitations that may exist in what types of information can be shared when a unit owner or shareholder requests it, the fact remains that open and strong communication can go a long way in ensuring a happy, well-adjusted building. Thanks new technologies, there are more ways than ever to share news and updates that affect the co-op or condo building community as a whole.
“Depending on the circumstances, there are different ways to communicate,” says Fierstein. “If it is an emergency situation like the boiler or an elevator being out of service, we sometimes use blast emails or robo calls. Posting notices is important as well. We also suggest to boards that they set up a building email address that residents can use to communicate with boards and management simultaneously.”
In smaller buildings, email may be the ideal way to disseminate information—in others, perhaps with an older mean age—printed letters may work better. In larger buildings or HOAs, regular newsletters, either online or via mail, can give reports and news about what's going on in the community.
Management plays an integral role in ensuring the steady flow of information to residents as well as making sure that boards maintain open channels of communication with unit owners and shareholders. This is especially true in establishing the correct protocols for communication. “It is important to tell residents that their concerns must be put in writing,” says Fierstein. “Then the manager can easily forward emails or letters to the board for their evaluation.”
And if residents find that their building’s manager is not fulfilling his or her duties in terms of answering questions or sharing information, then they should not be afraid to speak up. “Contact the owner of the management company immediately,” says Fierstein. “Do not let this simmer.”
The Price of Silence
Should there be a long-term or particularly severe failure to communicate, the ramifications for board members can loom large, including up to potential legal action.
The pros point out that there could be costly ramifications for not communicating information that could affect residents, like a mold contamination in a unit on the top floor, or the removal of asbestos from the roof. While it won't do for a board to cause a panic by releasing information prematurely or incompletely, sitting on information that could impact residents' health or well-being isn't just unethical; it can lead to huge legal costs.
The other outcome of not communicating well is not much better than the litigation, and can result in the loss of positions on a board. Residents typically complain because of a lack of communication, and if a board is making major decisions without the owner’s input there will be suspicion and dissention. This could lead to a mutiny of the unit owners or shareholders and a campaign to remove the current board members from office. Most bylaws give shareholders and unit owners the right to petition for the removal of individual board members or the entire board.
As with any relationship, the one that exists between residents, board members and managers can be strengthened immeasurably with open, regularly maintained lines of communication. Without them, anxiety and suspicion can fester and grow, leading to headaches and even legal action among all involved. Talk in these instances is certainly not cheap—quite the contrary, it can be priceless in building a strong, happy community.
Elizabeth Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.