I am often asked by the board members and property managers of my condominium and community association clients to attend open board meetings. I enjoy attending open board meetings because they provide an opportunity to observe how these associations function. That is, they allow me to watch firsthand as my clients discuss and conduct board business in front of the owners. Even better, they allow me to observe how boards interact with owners, and vice-versa. Usually I am asked to attend these meetings because boards are anxious about the “owner forum” portion of the meeting.
The owner forum is the period of time set aside by the board for the sole purpose of providing unit owners and homeowners the opportunity to ask questions and make comments about how they feel their community is being run—and has been known to strike fear in the hearts of board members, causing mouths to go dry and palms to become sweaty. This anxiety occurs because the owner forum is when a board has the least amount of control. Owners can—and often do—say whatever they want when given the opportunity, and their comments are usually not praise for the chocolate chip cookies Betty baked for the neighborhood social. More often, comments are critical, if not downright cynical.
Do We Have To?
Given the stress and confrontation often presented by an owner forum, it’s fair for a board to ask whether they’re required to include them in meetings at all. After all, these are open board meetings, called for the purpose of allowing the board to conduct board business.
The short answer is yes, for the most part. Community association boards that are governed by the Common Interest Community Association Act (CICAA) have a legal obligation to reserve a portion of their open board meeting for comments by members pursuant to CICAA. Condominium association boards do not have the same legal obligation; however, with transparency being a fundamental cornerstone of association legislation, it remains sensible to have mandatory owner forum included in board meetings.
So, given that owner forums must be included in most cases, how does a board plan for them, and (perhaps even more importantly) get through them with dignity and without causing damage to community and board morale? Thankfully, the Illinois General Assembly has armed boards with two critical mechanisms to keep owner forums productive and under control: the law gives boards sole discretion to determine (1) the duration of the owner forum and (2) the placement of it within the open meeting agenda. This gives boards the tools to conduct a successful owner forum, but they must still be thoughtful and strategic in doing so.
Determining the proper duration of an owner forum varies from association to association, so it requires a little planning. One approach is for the board to consider the average number of owners that attend each open board meeting, then estimate what portion of those owners are likely to participate in the owner forum. Multiply the number of owners the board estimates will participate by the number of minutes allotted to each owner; the total number will determine how much time should be allocated for the forum.
For example, if based on past attendance you believe 30 owners will attend the open board meeting, and of those, perhaps 15 will participate in the owners forum, the math will be as follows: 15 participants x 3 minutes of speaking time per participant = 45 minutes for the forum portion of the meeting. If 45 minutes seems like too much, less time—perhaps two minutes—could be allocated per owner.
Using this formula allows a board to set aside a reasonable amount of time to allow for owner participation—but while establishing the duration of an owner forum is helpful, actually controlling the duration requires proper enforcement techniques. I advise all my clients to review the ‘housekeeping rules’ for the owner forum with meeting attendees before it begins. The board president—or whichever board member is most comfortable with public speaking—should inform the assembled membership of the total amount of time set aside for the owner forum, as well as for individual remarks.
Members should also be informed the board has a timer, and will be using it during the forum portion of the meeting to ensure that everyone has a chance to participate. These days everyone brings their cell phones—which all have built-in timers—to open board meetings, so it’s advisable to use one cell phone timer to keep track of the overall duration of the owner forum, and another to track the speaking time allotted to each individual owner. The timer should be set to beep or play a loud sound indicating when the allotted time has expired. This serves as a helpful reminder to the board, the person speaking, and the entire membership that allotted time is being tracked, and all speakers are being held to those time limitations.
Note that if the board forgets or chooses not to use a timer, owners will almost certainly exceed their allotted time, and the forum will in turn greatly exceed its allotted time. It’s extremely important for the board to remind owners of the housekeeping rules as needed and when appropriate, both before and after the forum begins, to maintain control over this section of the meeting.
Where to Put It?
The next major decision a board must make is where in its agenda to place the owner forum. Placing the owner forum at the beginning of an open board meeting has its advantages and disadvantages, as does placing it at the end. Many owners attend open board meetings for the sole purpose of airing their primary complaint, or asking the board a question that’s been on their mind. As a result, these owners often show up to the meeting with a lot of built-up energy; the tension in the room is unmistakable. Placing the owner forum at the beginning of an open board meeting allows a board to quickly release that energy and tension by immediately addressing owner questions and comments. Conducting the owner forum first also provides the board with a legitimate reason to keep it short and concise, because the board still has an open board meeting to execute. Another advantage is that some very vocal owners will often leave the meeting once their question has been answered, or their complaint placed. This further reduces tension in the room, and allows the board to move more expediently through its agenda with less chance of interruption.
The primary disadvantage of placing an owner forum at the beginning of an open board meeting is that it may energize disgruntled owners and raise tension levels. If this occurs and the board is not equipped to maintain control over the meeting, chaos and mayhem may follow. Unit owners may hijack the meeting by grossly exceeding their allotted time for remarks, and prevent the board from conducting board business. Should this occur, the board may be forced to adjourn the meeting without conducting any business.
On the other hand, placing the owner forum at the end of an open board meeting is advantageous because it ensures that the board can address each item on its agenda before opening the floor to the owners. Delaying the forum until the end of the meeting also forces owners to wait quietly through the entire board meeting before having the opportunity to participate. This structure can serve to calm highly disgruntled owners so that when their chance to speak arrives, their participation is more reasoned. The other benefit is that a board may more quickly and easily adjourn a meeting if the owner forum goes sideways after the board has finished conducting its business.
Viewed differently, placing the owner forum at the end of an open board meeting forces energized and disgruntled owners to remain patient throughout the meeting. It can be difficult for even the best board to maintain control over highly motivated and disgruntled owners for the duration of an entire meeting. Asking owners to remain quiet throughout the board meeting can increase the likelihood of interruptions. A second potential disadvantage is that board members may feel hurried to rush through agenda items, knowing owners are anxiously awaiting the forum segment. This can be a real distraction, and can negatively impact the effectiveness of board member participation.
Clearly, both options have their pros and cons—but regardless of which approach a board takes, those that are thoughtful and strategic when it comes to administering owner forums dramatically increase the likelihood of those forums being productive, structured, and civil.
Michael J. Shifrin is an attorney and owner of Shifrin Legal Inc., a Chicago-based law firm serving condo, HOA and co-op communities in the Chicagoland area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.