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E-Mail Madness

A man, whom we'll call John Smith, had just been elected president of his co-op board when he was introduced to the latest phenomenon in board behavior: out-of-control e-mailers. Smith says he thought the problem was bad when he first learned of it, but then came the weekend when the building's managing agent logged 80 e-mails from a handful of board members, all about one issue: leaf removal. The agent complained to Smith, who called a meeting. Enough was enough. Something had to be done.

"I asked members to voluntarily limit their e-mails to agenda-setting, points of clarity, and emergency issues." Some of the board appeared relieved by the intervention, and so far, Smith says, the amount of cyber-chatter has definitely subsided. "People were e-mailing each other over every issue, which made it very difficult to get things done. We got to the point where the board was almost in constant session."

Part of the reason why the board members went overboard is because, for a long time, a small cadre of owners who were not forthcoming with information ran the building. In the spirit of communication, the members were now overcompensating - acquainting themselves with all aspects of day-to-day management and sharing every opinion on that. The other reason for the overuse is because it is easier, for some, to use e-mail than a phone or a letter. The result, however, was an overabundance of time spent clarifying what each director meant by his or her e-mail.

E-mail can be a useful tool - or a distracting nuisance. If you're using it for board matters, observes attorney Mark Axinn, a partner with the law firm of Brill & Meisel, "confidentiality is absolutely a problem. I think anyone who uses e-mail knows that you cannot assume that your intended recipient is the only person who will see that e-mail. It's a possibility that the e-mail would be forwarded or accidentally misdirected to someone else. And therefore, board members should be circumspect in what they write."

Joseph Colbert, a partner with Rosen & Livingston, concurs. Colbert, who teaches a course on e-mail use with Michael Wolfe, president of Midboro Management, for the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums, says that a lot of people believe that when you delete something, it's gone forever. "But until the hard drive is written over, it can [still] be found. It's just like writing a letter - and like a piece of paper, you can retrieve an e-mail."

The two men offer a list of areas that boards should avoid discussing via e-mail: admission and employment decisions ("a fertile area of employment litigation," says Colbert); criticism of others; information protected by the board's attorney-client privilege, and generally any information that a board member would not be comfortable discussing in a roomful of people.

An e-mail message can be used as a proxy for a board meeting, provided it's clear who wrote it, the purpose of the meeting, and when it is to be held. And, while some issues can be discussed by e-mail, board meetings cannot be held via e-mail, unless provided for by the building's bylaws. Any polling of votes done via e-mail must be ratified at the next scheduled board meeting.

Despite the potential pitfalls, the majority of his boards prefer e-mail, reports Wolfe. "The only problem is when the e-mail gets monotonous. If it is too many people responding, it can get counterproductive."

At the Colonial Arms Condominium on 83rd Street in Jackson Heights, Rebecca Roman, the president, says she confines her e-mails to alerting board members of upcoming sales, reminding them of meetings, and sharing information about ongoing work, project proposals, and deadlines. Overall, she thinks the e-mail traffic is more temperate. "Our meetings can get loud," says Roman. "On e-mail, we work to keep the volume down."

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