Q. I am a condo board member and often hear my fellow members say at our meetings, “What goes on in here stays in here.” How can that be fair to our unit owners? Shouldn’t everything go in the minutes except for names and amounts owed and one calls the like? Transparency is forgotten too often since too many vendettas are ruling the meetings.
—Unit Owner Who’s Speaking Up
A. “Condo board and homeowner associations have different practices concerning how business is accomplished,” says attorney Stuart Lieberman of the firm Lieberman & Blecher, based in Princeton. “Increasingly some rely heavily on private email exchanges and or phone calls during which many issues are informally decided – hopefully at least ratifying their actions at subsequent open meetings.
“But ultimately the inquirer is correct: unit owners need to know what decisions are being made and how they are being made. So in real life conflicts occur. Board members simply cannot meet every time an important, timely decision needs to be made. At the same time unit owners want and need transparency.
“Boards must never have an ‘us-against-them’ mentality. Everyone has money invested in the association and everyone, whether or not they volunteer for the board, has equal rights.
“Few things can really be regarded as secrets, limited to litigation issues, all attorney-client communications, perhaps specifics of a collection matter, employee issues and a handful of other very limited encounters. Otherwise, everyone has equal rights to information and information must be available. This is not just limited to budget and spending information.
“First, unit owners have a right to scheduled meetings, which must be scheduled as per applicable law and the governing documents. Advanced notice must be provided allowing for attendance and participation by all.
“Second, all decisions need to be discussed and voted upon at the meetings. Yes, sometimes emergencies may require prompt board polling, but in those cases what took place should be publicly discussed and ratified in front of everyone. As I said, this practice may not apply fully to a limited group of subjects such as ongoing litigation, the particulars of a collection case, and attorney-client communications.
“Third, minutes should provide enough information to depict what transpired. There is a line that must be walked here. Minutes are not word-for-word transcripts. But they must be complete enough to describe what happened, who did it, and why it was done. One-line minutes are worthless.
“Fourth, public involvement and participation must be encouraged. Unit owners need to know that the board has members who will be equally affected by any board decision as will they. Unit owners often forget that.
“If the board raises monthly fees, each board member will have to pay those increases. Encouraging real member involvement enhances transparency, avoids a lot of infighting, and protects the association from many baseless accusations and legal claims.
“Fifth, some kind of ongoing communication to unit owners really helps. If unit owners only hear from the board when fees are going, up or when new unit owner requirements are approved (cleaning dryer vents, pans under washers, etc), don’t be surprised when unit owners become annoyed. This takes time and money, and to some extent is a bit “wishful,” but outreach pays off.
“Sixth, make sure that really big issues (i.e. a possible big assessment due to an emerging siding issue, etc.) are identified as soon as possible. If in January the board learns there may be a problem with the siding and that problem may require an assessment perhaps in July, get that information out as soon as possible. Don’t wait for July when an announced assessment is made. This way people can be prepared, they can start saving money for this, and intervening new owners will hopefully be apprised of this possibility either directly from the sellers (good luck with that) or by a review of the minutes before purchase. A lot of lawsuits can be avoided if this is done.
“So I agree with the inquirer. It is ‘never us-against-them.’ Some boards act that way and that is always unfortunate. Everyone really is in the same boat. Boards must be very open about what they are doing and they need to communicate. Not only does the law require this, but more importantly common sense demands it.”