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I Became a Born-Again Board Member

Amazing things can happen when the right questions get asked. I found that out in the nine months I have been serving on the board of my 22-unit Manhattan building.

Last fall, multiple storm systems converged on New York, resulting in drought-busting rainfall that drenched the city for three days. I remember the weekend well. I was getting married that Sunday and was filled with anxiety, primarily because the wedding was scheduled to take place in an outdoor, unsheltered garden. Things turned out fine for my bride and me - the rain stopped just an hour before the ceremony, and the overcast skies became the perfect canvas for our wedding photos.

However, back home, my co-op hadn't faired as well. Leaks had surfaced along three bedroom walls in three floors of the "A" line of apartments. An angry tenant sent complaints to our manager, who initially suspected exterior wall damage. One contractor assessed the situation, and proposed some $4,000 worth of masonry work.

At this point, I received a call from the new board president, who had become increasingly concerned about the building operating expenses. He wanted to put another set of eyes on the leak problem, preferably from the perspective of an active board member. Since my schedule allowed for a few work-at-home days during the week, I decided to get involved.

I obtained a copy of the masonry bid. All the proposed work was focused on the exterior north wall, a vertical structure somewhat protected from westerly winds. As a top-floor tenant, my thoughts turned to our aging asphalt roof, a horizontal surface that collects water in numerous small puddles after rainstorms. Looking around the roof area, I noticed missing mortar joints along parapet walls, evidence of opening seams on the surface, and a roof scupper drained by a folded shingle instead of an outlet pipe. Why weren't we focusing on the roof as a source of leaks?

Another contractor was brought in. Once again, attention was on the exterior wall, not the roof. The bid was the same amount as before, but proposed work on a different section of the north wall. So far, we had two separate bids that we could not compare, and both seemed to be misdiagnosing the problem.

I did some further research, and much of the advice on leaks seemed to confirm my suspicion about the roof. Clearly, we had to better define the problem before more contractors came wandering in, talking about what they could do instead of what they should do.

Fortunately, I had additional opportunities to educate myself about leaks. Around this time, the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums was holding a workshop on roofs and exterior walls, which our board president encouraged me to attend. I went to a three-hour workshop about asphalt and bricks. It was better than an Alfred Hitchcock movie. I sat riveted in my seat, taking copious notes and asking many questions. The upshot of it all seemed to confirm my earlier suspicions: roughly 90 percent of exterior wall leaks originate from horizontal collection surfaces, mainly around the roof.

Armed with a better hypothesis about the cause of the problem, the board members agreed to arrange for minor repairs around the roof, mainly filling loose mortar joints and sealing various cracks and open seams. The leaks have yet to reappear. Emergency masonry work was not done on exterior walls, which means much less labor, less material, no scaffolding, and therefore much lower repair costs.

This leak problem highlighted an important issue. Board members need to be involved in building operations, but what and how deeply should they go?

I had something I could compare my experiences to: my earlier tenure, serving on the board for two years just after my initial purchase about four years ago. I ended up on that board somewhat reluctantly. At the time, I had a lot going on in my life. But the annual meeting was sparsely attended, a few members had resigned, and the board needed the membership.

In retrospect, I didn't get very involved. I was the newest member, and things seemed to be running smoothly. That president worked well with the managing agent, while the treasurer had a great deal of experience with building finances, and two other members had been around for quite a while.

As time went on, however, the quality of communication began to deteriorate. Issues were discussed and not fully resolved. Personality conflicts developed. Meetings began to drag on needlessly. In the midst of this, and with the addition of increasing external commitments, I did not bother to run for the board after that two-year period

My current involvement with this board is much more active, partly because of a change in board composition and leadership. The difference between the previous board and the new one is really about clearer communication and an increase in the distribution of responsibility.

It's also about education - encouraging board members to learn more about their building, share ideas with other cooperative communities, and assume leadership in areas of interest or expertise. The leak problem was really my entry into significant involvement in building inspections and planning for long-term capital improvements.

This, in turn, led to developing a more methodical way of conducting and documenting building inspections. Discussions related to building inspections raised questions about how to better distinguish between management and superintendent responsibilities. This resulted in the creation of draft management and staff rating forms (one of which is shown on page 51). Both are intended to create more reliable communication between board members and management regarding staff expectations and accountability.

As a result, the entire board is becoming much more aware of what is going on in our building and how to better plan for the future. Members are also more prone to ask the kinds of informed questions that might lead to better decisions about building operating budgets, short-term repairs, and long-term capital improvements. Better questions, clearer communication, more critical assessments, an increase in shared responsibility - all of this can really help not only board members, but all unit-owners, in developing a greater sense of community and satisfaction as shareholders in a cooperative apartment building.

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