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Epistolary Advice

 

Dear New Board Director,

You have just been elected to the board. What joy! What triumph! But before you break out the champagne, a few of your more experienced friends have gotten together to offer a little advice on how to behave now that you are an esteemed (we used that word advisedly) member of the board.

"Being elected to the board doesn't confer instant knowledge," warns Mary Ann Rothman, executive director of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums. "It makes sense to ask questions that occur to you and to persevere until you get answers that seem right to you."

Of course, you are new, which is good because you can look at every issue with fresh eyes. That's expected. That's good. But don't simply discard lessons of the past (remember that old saying, "He who forgets the past is destined to repeat it." Or something like that.) Before you move to criticize or discard previous decisions, find out why they were made. Learn before you leap.

You should always think of the board as an "all-for-one, one-for-all" kind of group. "The board runs as a partnership," Rothman notes. "You contribute to a part of it. You do not take heat on your own because decisions are made together. So credit and blame go together."

"Remember," advises Alvin Wasserman, director of Fairfield Property Services, "everyone is pulling together for the best effort. Always keep in mind that you're on the same team."

You also need to heed the owners. In fact, you should spend a lot of time — we suspect you won't be able to avoid — listening to your "constituents." Get Zen-like about the experience. Open your mind. "You should not have any preconceived notions of what it means to be on the board," warns Gerard J. Picaso, president of Gerard J. Picaso. "You should know in advance that serving on the board takes hard work, dedication, and time. You will spend a lot of time listening to people complain about things, and you must use the wisdom of Solomon in dealing with some complaints."

You must educate yourself. Read the bylaws proprietary lease, and house rules. Ask questions. "Join professional groups such as the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums," advises Irwin Cohen, president of A. Michael Tyler Realty. "Subscribe to Habitat magazine and other trade-related publications to keep abreast of current events. Do not rely only on word-of-mouth information provided (sometimes) by your managing agent. Read the real estate section of the New York Times."

Also, heed advice from those in the know. "Ask questions and get advice from others if you are unsure of any issue," says Cohen. "Seek professional help from attorneys, accountants, insurance agents, engineers, consultants. Don't try to do everything yourself or without professional guidance to try to save money. It may cost you more in the long run. Your next-door neighbor may (or may not) be a good source of advice."

Delegate and provide direction to your professionals. "Board members should realize that they are guiding the managing agent, not directing the staff on how to clean," says Fred Rudd, president of Rudd Realty. "It is better to have a buffer between the staff and the board; to have a chain of command."

"You should listen to your professionals; you should turn to them for advice," Rothman adds. "The ultimate decisions are made by the group, not by an individual."

Always remember that — although it may seem like a social club with gossip and three-hour, chatty meetings — running a co-op or condo is actually a very serious business, with the emphasis on business. "The greatest misconception by board members is that they don't understand that they're running a multi-million dollar business," Picaso notes. "It's not a hobby. When you make a decision, it affects everyone in the building. Buildings that are not run in a businesslike manner have financial problems." If that means raising maintenance, you have to do it — even if you know that it will make you unpopular.

"Actions that you take can lead to litigation," says Rudd. "Part of the managing agent's job is to recommend behavior that will minimize liability. You should not talk about things outside the board meeting. What is said at a board meeting is private."

Remember: all are equal. "You have to treat everyone the same way," Picaso says. "You can't make allowances because someone is a friend of yours or is a board member. Board members can't get preferential treatment."

Keep the residents in the know. "Keep shareholders and owners informed with periodic newsletters or memos concerning activities and plans," says Cohen.

You should try and get satisfaction from your stint doing "community service" — that's actually what serving on the board is — because you'll find that there are few other rewards. It is commonly agreed that it is a thankless job. "You can't be thin-skinned," notes Wasserman. "You have to make knowledgeable decisions and vote your conscience. Be aware that, for every decision you make, there will be a significant percentage of the community that will not agree with it. Hopefully, whatever decisions will be made will satisfy the majority of the community and be in the best interests of the entire community."

"You should expect hard work, far more complaints than thanks but you have an opportunity to learn a lot about your building and opportunity to have a say about the quality of life in your building," concludes Rothman. In the end, you may have made your home a better place to live. That should be thanks enough. Sincerely,

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