The headline of a recent Walpole, Massachusetts newspaper article reads: “Fight between Walpole selectmen cuts meeting short.” The first sentence of the article stated, “Selectmen came to verbal blows on Tuesday night, prompting other board members to cut the meeting short as two of their colleagues took the altercation outside.”
Board Meetings Gone Wild
It sounds like it could have been from an episode of a fictitious reality show entitled ‘Board Meetings Gone Wild,’ where viewers watch meetings that are out of control, overlong, unproductive or, as in this case, downright hostile. Even comedian Dave Barry said of meetings, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings.'”
The scary part is that this is reality. In some cases, board meetings turn into ‘verbal blows’ and, in some extreme cases, physical confrontations. Board meetings can get very heated. Different ideas, differences of opinion and different agendas can cause so much stress in a meeting where people want to give their opinions, solve problems, make decisions, vote and get back home to their families. As a result, board meetings should have a protocol or policy in place for when things get a little tense and tempers start to flare out of control.
Building managers who have been on the job long enough have seen it all. The good news, they say, is that with adequate preparation and by following the proper rules of order, just about every meeting an association holds can be run without a hitch.
Prevention is the Best Medicine
The biggest cause of disruption in meetings is dissension among association members. While differences of opinion are unavoidable—and can lead to positive changes when they're managed proactively and effectively—unproductive bickering and a great deal of acrimony can be circumvented by keeping owners in the loop on any and all issues long before the night of the meeting.
According to attorney Bill Groebe, J.D., CCIM, the owner and president of Groebe Management Services in Palos Heights, “When the board just shows up and says, 'We’re going to prohibit trucks and vans and SUVs' or something like that, you’ve got a revolution at the meeting. You’ve got people saying ‘Who thought of this,’ and ‘Why would you do that?’ ”
Communication is the antidote. “Most boards are not transparent enough,” says Groebe. “If they put a little more effort up front to reach out and inform, and keep people up-to-date on what they are going to be doing, it makes for easier transitions at meetings.”
Groebe recommends boards host periodic “owner” sessions—informal discussions over coffee on a Saturday morning perhaps—to let people know what the board is planning over the next six months to a year, and to keep a dialogue going on important issues.
Committee meetings are another way to demonstrate transparency. Composed of association members, usually with a board member at the helm, committees are essential for researching building issues and presenting proposals to the board to prepare them for decisions. And just as important, when issues are brought up for a vote at a board meeting, the community will likely be more receptive to adjustments in the rules and regulations when the rationale comes from “civilian” owners, rather than just board members.
“If you have the committee saying, ‘We think we should upgrade our parking rules because we don’t want pickup trucks parking in the driveway’ ,” says Groebe, “by the time they get to the meeting most people are going to say ‘That’s reasonable; that makes sense. Why wouldn’t we do that?’ ”
Other ways boards can be sure association members know they value transparency, according to Pamela Chianelli, a property manager at Property Solutions Chicago, is to “make available meeting minutes in a timely manner, so residents can see what’s been decided upon, and catch them up to speed.”
Plus, she advises, “Do a newsletter for the building. That’s an informal way of keeping people up to date on issues.” And let members know they can call the manager. “If somebody doesn’t know what’s going on because they’ve missed meetings, the manager should have a talk with that person to answer questions so that they don’t disrupt the meeting.”
Board members should come to meetings prepared to make decisions and the property manager is their best resource, according to Chianelli. “The manager should organize and give board members the information they need to make their decisions in advance. Managers should put a package together with the financials, topics and proposals to give them kind of a heads-up on what they’re going to be discussing.”
Optimally, all association members should receive the agenda for a board meeting well in advance—even before the two days Illinois law dictates. Also, according to consultant Angela Falzone, owner of ASF Enterprises LLC, a property management and consulting company in Park Ridge, “There should be advance notification to the owners of how the meeting will be handled, so they understand the process, to move decisions along. And boards should adhere to those standards.”
Running the Meeting – Robert’s Rules
Originally written by U.S. Army Brigadier General Henry Martyn Robert in 1876, Robert’s Rules of Order is still considered the ultimate reference for running successful meetings. Of course, it’s been revised—10 times—and adapted, altered for use by specific organizations (as Community Associations Institute has done for condo boards and managers) and brought up to date to cover proper standards for email correspondence, videoconferencing and such.
“Robert’s Rules of Order is a classic protocol for parliamentary law or procedure,” says Falzone—“intended to create harmony among the participants.” Robert’s Rules in its entirety is densely detailed and elaborate, but, she says, “If the presiding officer understands the basic strategy, he or she can modify the structure of the meeting to fit within the guidelines without overburdening everyone,” simplifying things as needed to keep things moving.
The presiding officer in condominium, cooperative and homeowners association meetings is the president of the board of directors, except in the rare instance that the board turns the job over to the manager. His or her job, simply (if not always easily) is to bring a meeting along the following steps, according to Patricia Bialek, vice president of property management at Chicago-based FirstService Residential Illinois:
• Open all board and association meetings at the appointed time by taking the chair and calling the meeting to order and ascertaining that a quorum is present.
• Announce in proper sequence the business that comes before the association in accordance with the prescribed agenda.
• Recognize members who are entitled to speak before the board.
• State and put to vote all questions that come before the board and to announce the result of each vote on any motion that is make to the board.
• Protect the board from obviously frivolous or dilatory motions by refusing to recognize those motions.
• Enforce rules relating to debate and decorum before the board.
• Expedite business of the board.
• Declare the meeting adjourned at the conclusion of any board or association meeting.
And don’t go overboard. Do it all within an hour. Two at the most. “An hour is more than sufficient,” Groebe says. “If you have resolutions typed, you move, you second, you vote. If the owners have been aware of it, and the board has been talking about it for a couple of months, not a lot that should go on into a meeting. It’s just the public display of what you’re going to decide on.”
Spring meetings, which often deal with capital projects, can take a bit longer. “If you’re bringing in a contractor to discuss a bid on pavement or lakes or ponds,” says Groebe, “that might take a little longer.” In that case, an hour and a half should do it, he figures. Summer meetings will likely take less time, if they happen at all with people taking vacations and generally in a summer state of mind.
Boards are required by Illinois law to meet four times a year, including the annual meeting to elect board members, but most meet more often, depending on their size. If meetings tend to push the hour-to-hour-and-a-half mark, the board should meet more often.
The Manager in the Wings
The association’s manager typically serves as kind of a coach at meetings. The manager, says Falzone, “monitors that it's going smoothly and ensures proper motions, votes and tabling of motions is adhered to.”
They might even use secret sign language. “I have various codes I share with my presidents,” she says, “indicating when I think they need to intervene to move the meeting along.”
How does the president know when an issue under consideration is ready for a vote? “It’s usually instinct, or personal preference,” says Falzone. “If the conversation is repetitive, cut to the chase, and ask for a motion. If there still seems to be confusion, questions, loose ends, etc., the presiding director should ask for a motion to table, and note what the next steps are—for example ‘tabled pending further information,’ ‘tabled until spring,’ or ‘tabled for committee.’ ”
At no time should a topic be left hanging, adds Falzone. “Either motion to do it, motion to stop it, motion to table it—but do something. And the minutes should reflect where it stands.”
Best Laid Plans
Even if the board has prepared an immaculate agenda, sent it out well in advance and has reached out to and informed the community on issues that will likely come up for a vote, a board meeting is still liable to descend into chaos if the board is not prepared to deal with itinerant association members.
Actually, in all but the most extreme cases, hothead owners are easy to deal with—in theory, at least. According to Illinois law, everyone in the association must be allowed to attend the meeting, but none is entitled to speak…not a word.
“In Illinois, the board does not have to even look at the audience,” explains Groebe, adding, “they do usually, of course.”
Giving voice to the community is a balancing act. The board does not want to appear isolated and intolerant, but its primary responsibility is to run the business of the association responsibly and effectively, not to take the chance of letting the process grind to a halt by allowing owners to take up their personal agendas or vent their feelings.
Boards often will schedule a brief “open forum” for owner input, but they should stick to a precise time frame, say 15 minutes, perhaps limiting each comment to one or two minutes. And never put it at the beginning of the meeting.
“A lot of boards start their meetings with owner forums, which I think is ridiculous,” says Groebe. “Talk about long meetings. If you are going to have them at all, have them at the end”—even better, after the meeting. “Adjourn the meeting and then have the open forum,” he advises.
Laying Down the Ground Rules
The president should let the audience know from the start when they might have a chance to speak. They should, says Falzone, “make an announcement at the beginning, stating the protocol so that owners know they are not being ignored, but their interruptions will not be tolerated.”
It’s especially important to lay out the ground rules clearly in smaller, self-managed buildings, she adds, “where often everyone thinks they get to vote. We call that ‘mob rule.’ ”
If the owner introduces a new issue, says Falzone, “the presiding officer should thank the person, make a note of the issue, and state it will be looked into and put on the next agenda. There is no need to discuss a topic without background and sufficient knowledge for an intelligent decision to be made.” The same rule applies to a board member bringing up a new issue.
If an association member interrupts the meeting to voice their concerns or complaints, or goes on past their allotted time during the open forum, says Falzone, “the president needs to cut that off and request that they put their issue in writing to management or the board. And then move on to the next owner.”
But what if polite and gentle redirection doesn’t convince a particularly incensed owner to put their case on hold or if an issue suddenly rouses a few owners into combat?
“I advise my board president to adjourn the meeting for 15 minutes until clearer heads prevail,” says Falzone. “On rare occasions if the turmoil is aggressive, it is adjourned for the night. Otherwise, a good gavel pounded on a table usually gets everyone's attention.”
“Again,” she insists, “if the control valve is put in motion at the very start, owners and board members will understand their limits.”
A little preparation and foresight should keep cooler heads and the blows to a minimum.
Steven Cutler is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator.