You may love your building. You may even love your neighbors and the members of your board. But there are few people who can say that they love their monthly board meetings or annual shareholder meetings. That’s because many of these meetings drag on for hours, and some folks feel that they're exercises in time-wasting. Still others watch their board and shareholder meetings devolve into pointless shouting matches, complete with name-calling.
Board meetings in every building—small and large, co-op and condo, studio and five bedroom—get out of hand. Issues are heated, lots of money is at stake and there are many of people with tons of different ideas of how their building should be run.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Boards, unit owners and committees can improve the quality and productivity of their meetings very easily with a few simple guidelines.
Unfortunately, it could all go downhill before the meeting even starts, says Angela Falzone, a consultant with Association Advocates Inc. in Chicago and owner of ASF Enterprises, LLC, a small boutique, full service management company in Park Ridge.
One of the most common problems that bogs down a board or committee meeting is when a board member arrives and is not prepared for the meeting—or if the management didn’t give the board enough information to make informed decisions or enough time to review the information prior to the meeting, Falzone says.
If at all possible, board members should be given all the information about the meeting and everything that has to do with the meeting at the earliest date and time possible. And it’s the board member’s obligation to the building to take his position seriously, and to review all documents prior to the meeting.
The law says that owners need to have a 48-hour notice before a meeting, Falzone says, but her management company always gives everyone a full week whenever possible.
She suggests putting the agenda out as soon as they get the meeting notice so that the owners have the time to digest what will be discussed and will make sure to be there if the subject matter to be discussed is important to them. The other major problem has to do with the unit owners, because many times at meetings, unit owners are allowed too much input.
“Board meetings are for board members only,” Falzone says. “Owners are invited to attend per the law, but should not speak unless permitted.”
The correct process is to put an open forum on the agenda. Only then should an owner be allowed to speak. The board can also dictate how long each owner has to speak, Falzone says. Issues brought up can then be discussed by the board or tabled pending further information. But the issues discussed should not be random, and must be focused on the topics at hand.
“This is not a griping session—boards should not allow owners to complain about other owners, board members, the higher assessment,” she says. “That’s reserved for a different process. Issues that work well are things an owner notices on the property that the board or management may have missed and will need attention.”
These could include suggesting new rules that will correct some perceived issues that they have. Instead of personal agendas, it would focus on insight on the management of the property.
A simple way to quench a problem prior to them becoming issues would be to clearly explain the rules to the group before the meeting begins, and also to explain why each decision and choice is made throughout the meeting, says Kim May, general manager with Advanced Property Specialists, Inc. in Tinley Park.
“Sometimes, the unit owners hear the decisions but don’t hear the reasons behind the decisions,” May says. “They need more information on why the board members are making these decisions.”
While it’s important to be clear about why each decision is being made, it’s also important to remember that these are business meetings—not griping sessions by the owners and the board—or worse—fights.
“Board meetings are for the purpose of performing the business of the association, nothing more,” Falzone says.
It helps to remind everyone of the topic at hand, says Sara Kennedy, a broker/manager with Marian Realty, Inc., a full service property management firm in the Chicago area. “I find that summarizing the discussion, and then creating a ‘next step’ is the best thing to do,” Kennedy says. “That next step does not have to be the final solution—it can just be more investigation, set up as a committee to talk further. Then we have to move on to the next item.”
Sometimes, however, by the time someone in the group remembers that this is a condo board meeting, it’s too late, and it’s already gotten out of control and may have become combative.
“If the president or speaker can’t get attention, adjourn the meeting for a period of time until clearer heads prevail,” Falzone suggests. “If all else fails, end the meeting and reset the date.”
All About Robert’s Rules
This type of meeting disorder isn’t something that only happens in condo board meetings. In the 1800s, Henry Martyn Robert had been an engineering officer in the Army when he was asked to preside over a public meeting. It didn’t end well, and he was determined to figure out how to prevent anarchy from occurring during meetings.
He ended up writing Robert’s Rules of Order,which is a manual for parliamentary law that’s now in its 11th edition. There is a simpler version that can be used to run board meetings—and short of following a book’s procedures, there should be some form of structure.
“It is highly suggested that some form of procedures be voted on and agreed to by all parties to establish a process where the affairs of the association can be controlled and the conditions set forth in harmony,” Falzone says.
And while Robert’s Rules of Ordermay be too restrictive for condo and co-op associations, it would be helpful for boards and managements to read through the book to adopt a process related to and adopted from Robert’s Rules, Falzone suggests.
Anything that prevents havoc, keeps order and sticks to the agenda at hand will do the job, May says.
Specific details such as calling a meeting to order, having a format for minute-taking, a process to obtain a vote on expenditures and for an agenda and other procedures—should have a detailed format from which the board and all the future boards will follow, Falzone says.
“That consistency creates efficiency and better management,” she says.
Consistency in the length of a meeting is also important, May says. She tries to make her board meetings last about an hour—which is about the attention span of her members. To stick to this time frame while getting in everything that needs to be discussed, May always goes through the agenda first before allowing questions. Then, she does a Q&A section after the agenda has been completed.
But, she says, once in a while, it’s impossible for the meeting to be done in 60 minutes.
“We try to have a thorough meeting,” she says. “If it takes two hours, it takes two hours.”
A very good benchmark to board meeting timing is a booklet by Attorney John Bickley III, a principal of the Buffalo Grove, Illinois-based law firm of Kovitz Shifrin Nesbit called The One Hour Board Meeting.
Most management companies manage this even further via language in the contract, and charge more if the meeting goes longer than a certain allowable period. For example, if the meeting lasts longer than two hours, then the management company will charge more, Falzone says.
They could say something along the lines of: “I won’t stay longer than two hours. If the board wants to talk about other things, I’ll get my business done and leave and they can stay all night,” she suggests.
There are things the board members and managers can do to prepare adequately for meetings to make sure they don’t drag on unnecessarily.
All bids should be prepared and reviewed before the meeting instead of at the meeting.
“Good managers will supply the paperwork, and if it’s a large, detailed project to be discussed, will create a spreadsheet showing all the important details on an ‘apples to apples’ format so the board could make an informed, supported decision. And good board members will have done their homework prior to the meeting,” Falzone says.
Even if the decision on a given matter is not to move forward, it would be based on solid facts.
The format for a meeting to go smoothly should be to have an open discussion, discuss the information, ask for a motion, pass or deny the motion and then to explain the next steps before moving on to the next subject. A committee meeting would be similar in format but not open to the public, so the strategy could be less restrictive as long as the attendees would use fair and efficient practices to come to their conclusions, Falzone says.
“Committees are usually not allowed to spend money, but are simply advisories to the board, so the same high level principles may not apply,” she says.
Follow the Rules
Think you can skip the rules if you have a small building? Think again. In fact, smaller building meetings can implode faster because the problems get to the surface sooner, so the better organized it is, the safer it is, Falzone says.
Smaller buildings are also similar to smaller schools or smaller offices where everyone knows each other—so gossiping and small talk is bound to slow meetings down. If there are rules, boundaries and laws in order to keep the meeting running efficiently, it would be better for everyone involved.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a 1,000-unit complex or a 5-unit complex,” May says. “It should still be run with the same type of agenda.”
During the meeting, it’s very important that the secretary take good minutes that all project details can be followed from meeting to meeting. This saves time at subsequent meetings so that no time is wasted trying to remember what was decided the previous month.
“Use the minutes as communication for owners,” Falzone says. “The law says to make them available, but we suggest sending them out marked as ‘draft’ to all owners so they know what is going on, causing less time to ask questions at meetings. Minutes are approved in draft form, but the information is current and informed owners are less likely to complain.”
Danielle Braff is a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator.