Maybe your child got in trouble at school, the dog had an accident on the carpet or a disgruntled call was received from a difficult client; whatever the reason, there are times when the last thing a condo board member or resident wants to do is to attend a board meeting.
Lack of enthusiasm doesn't make these meetings any less crucial and necessary, however, nor does it mean that community members who halfheartedly drag themselves to the common room to conduct association business won't find the energy to squabble, hurl insults, and derail the proceedings once they get there.
That being the case, it often falls to the property manager or the managing agent to keep things civil and the proceedings moving forward. Here are a few ideas to help make meetings as painless and productive as possible.
What Are We Doing Here?
A big first step toward maintaining order and giving structure to any meeting, whether it's a board-only session or an annual gathering of everyone in the building, is to put the meeting's goals and objectives in writing.
"Meetings can get off track if the board hasn't set a proper agenda or undergone the appropriate preparations," says Brent Straitiff, director of the association property management division of TriView in Chicago. "This includes making sure that the meeting runs as planned and stays on tasks for the duration. Preparation is key, and goes beyond having an effective agenda. The manager must be prepared to discuss all issues up for decision; that doesn't fall solely to the board."
If board members and residents aren't adequately prepared for the meeting and/or they use the gathering as an opportunity to axe-grind over a personal issue, it's only a matter of time before tempers grow short, progress stalls, and the meeting founders. If that happens, it's up to the manager to mediate, restore order, and guide the proceedings back on track.
“From a management standpoint, we can’t necessarily come in and take charge of a meeting; it’s the board’s time and they have to own that,” says Marlene Burgos, CAM, a regional manager with Florida-based Condominium Concepts Management.
“But we can certainly and do give advice that will keep things in line and maintain the peace. And we’re not afraid to intervene when things have clearly stopped being productive. I’ve turned to a board president and said flat-out that the conversation at hand is not going anywhere, and that I think the meeting should be adjourned.”
Giovanni Puerta, a senior property manager at a New York-based company, says miscommunication is another issue that leads to ineffective, frustrating board meetings. “When board members are not in tune with the issues at hand, meetings bog down, because everything takes more time to explain,” says Puerta. “When I have a new board, I take them through the packet a week prior to the meeting and ask them to send me any questions in advance of the meeting. This way at the meeting, I have answers to give them.”
Whether a meeting only has a few hiccups or one member takes it upon themselves to hijack the whole operation and filibuster endlessly about some trivial issue, the one person that can and should bring peace and uniformity back to the proceedings is the property manager.
“It is the role of the property manager to keep the meeting running fluidly,” says Christopher Murphy, a senior property manager based in New Jersey. “An effective way to do this is to create timed agendas. When the president calls the meeting to order, he or she should explain that the board is on a schedule and that the meeting will continue per the agenda.”
Straitiff stresses the necessity of time management: "with proper preparation, a board meeting should be an hour. After that, people start to lose focus and become unable to address the matters at hand. But that hour isn't absolute; some meetings can run longer depending on the issues at hand. The most important thing is to allocate the appropriate amount of time necessary to discuss the actionable agenda items before a meeting begins."
In Puerta’s experience, there are many times when a board and resident or a board and a manager may have differing views on the same issue, but to date he has not seen anyone storm out of meeting. Issues like capital improvements, he says, can cause these types of disagreements. “It’s my job to diffuse the situation and get everybody back on the same page,” says Puerta. “We have to come to a resolution, and the only way to do that is to move on.”
In the event a property manager can’t attend the meeting, it's incumbent upon the president of the board to keep the meeting professional and on-message. “An association needs a president with that strong leadership quality,” says Burgos. “Without that, you’re inviting bickering and yelling, as no one will take it upon his or herself to restore order. There needs to be a president who can firmly lay down the law, or else a meeting will be all over the place.”
Since it is human nature to disagree, there have been protocols in place to structure meetings and keep proceedings on-track. For example, Robert’s Rules of Order dates back to the 1800s. The slim volume—and more recently, the Robert's Rules website—“provides common rules and procedures for deliberation and debate in order to place the whole membership on the same footing and speaking the same language.” The goal is to provide for “constructive and democratic meetings, to help, not hinder, the business of the assembly. Under no circumstances should ‘undue strictness’ be allowed to intimidate members or limit full participation.”
Some experts, though, believe Robert’s Rules might be too formal for most co-op/condo meetings.
With regard to Robert’s Rules, Murphy says there key fundamental takeaways that all boards can benefit from. These include: one question at a time; one person, one vote; and majority rule. He adds that during a meeting, according to Robert’s Rules, it is the role of the sergeant-at-arms to keep order. In practice, he concedes, it is typically the property manager’s responsibility.
Formality, Length, and Purpose
When it comes to the administration of a co-op, condo or homeowners association, the word 'meeting' can have many meanings. For example, there are differences between a board meeting, a committee meeting, and an annual shareholder or unit owner meeting.
A board meeting has issues/motions to be decided; time limits need to be set for decisions; and opinions are elicited from the board. A committee meeting is usually called to work on a very specific task (redecorating the lobby, for example, or deciding what to plant in the flowerbeds) and is generally less formal than either an annual or board meeting.
“Board and shareholder meetings are rather similar,” says Murphy. “Committee meetings tend to be a little less formal; however, it is imperative that proper minutes are kept for all meetings.”
With regard to how long a meeting should last, Puerta explains that depends on the type of meeting it is, and what's on the agenda. “A board meeting should be between 45 minutes to one hour.” He says if meetings run longer, it may be because board members are allowing themselves and their colleagues to get stuck on a particular issue—or because they just enjoy the sound of their own voices a bit overmuch.
“Meetings length can vary based upon the size of the building and the items on the agenda,” says Murphy. “Election meetings can often take longer in a large building in order to tally the votes. But generally, an effective meeting should last no longer than 90 minutes.”
A building's size can also determine the style and approach to a meeting. Smaller buildings have the luxury of conducting their meeting on a more informal basis; it could even be held in someone’s apartment. Puerta, who represents buildings ranging from 12 to 1,500 units, says the meeting process is more “streamlined” in smaller buildings simply due to the smaller number of people involved.
No matter the size of the building or the type of meeting, experts says that it is imperative that board members and residents are presented defined agenda, handouts and spreadsheets in a timely fashion so that a proper decision can be rendered. And where it is a board president, property manager or a buildings attorney, it is important that when it comes time for questions, equal time is allotted.
Managers also recommend providing a defined but limited time for Q and A, and don't let a minority of owners monopolize the discussion. Make sure all have a chance to say their peace. If owners have additional questions, they can take it up with the board after the meeting.
“An easy way to facilitate this is to have questions and comments submitted in advance of the meeting and addressed prior to the open forum,” says Murphy. “By addressing as many issues prior to opening the meeting to the floor, it will reduce the amount of questions that will be asked.”
Puerta says it is important to keep in mind that board members are volunteers and many members are new to the process. As a result, many issues and concerns can be avoided by a proactive property manager.
“As a manager, it is my job to understand the daily functions of the building so I can explain issues to the board,” says Puerta. “I ask board members to e-mail before the meeting with any and all questions they may have. If there is an issue at a meeting the board president might chime in, but it is up to me—I serve as the mediator.”
In the end, the goal of both a board and a manager is to have the most efficient and expedient meeting possible. This all-important job falls to the manager. “Managers need to prepare the reports for the meeting in advance allowing the board to review the material,” says Murphy. “A detailed, timed agenda needs to be distributed in advance. Approved minutes of the previous meeting need to be distributed so that the same issues are not repeated.”
WB King is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator. Staff writer Michael Odenthal contributed to this article.