Like clockwork, your board meets every month. You sit for almost two hours and discuss everything from the super’s performance on the job to repointing that needs to be performed on the façade. Ideas frequently come up for ways to improve the co-op. You enjoy the give-and-take, and often one person’s idea will spark another idea that you hadn’t even considered.
At your friend’s building, however, it is another story. His board meets only four or five times a year at most, or else on an “as needed” basis. The board communicates by e-mail and phone on most issues and the building seems to run smoothly. The board members – and the managing agent – say they are much happier without having the “burden” of monthly meetings.
To meet or not – at least not regularly – is a question that many time-pressured board members are considering these days. On one side are many managers and other “pragmatists” who argue that meetings are about operations and that a building can be run just as smoothly with fewer get-togethers. On the other side are the “visionaries,” those board members who say that monthly give-and-take is more important than many realize. But does the way business is conducted – in person or electronically – make a difference as long as the building runs smoothly?
It depends on what you want to get from your meetings. “It is critical for a board to meet,” argues Herb Cooper-Levy, former head of the National Association of Housing Cooperatives. “Urgent business that cannot wait until the next face-to-face meeting can be accomplished by phone or e-mail. Such meetings, however, are not a replacement for regular meetings. Meetings that are not face-to-face don’t build relationships among members of the board, don’t permit board members to perceive critical nonverbal communication, and don’t allow interested members of the cooperative to witness or comment on proposed actions.”
Manager Donald H. Levy, a vice president and an account executive at Brown Harris Stevens, disagrees, arguing that, in a world of instantaneous communication, there are few drawbacks to less frequent in-person gatherings. “The rule of thumb used to be that boards had to meet monthly, in the evenings. Some boards feel they are being derelict if they don’t go through a full agenda every month. But unless there are catastrophes of construction or finance, you can conduct good business [without actually meeting]. I’m in contact with my buildings, the whole board, on a group e-mail. We communicate two or three times a week, depending on the level of activity. Nothing is lost. You still hold an annual shareholders meeting and the board still makes major policy decisions, does general governance, and maintains fiscal control.”
Steve Greenbaum, director of property management at Mark Greenberg Real Estate, feels that “the buildings that run best are those that trust their professionals – the engineers, architects, attorneys, accountants, and managing agents. As long as the board is kept in the loop and has the ultimate decision-making power, monthly meetings are unnecessary.”
Yet Greenbaum concedes that “some people need to be in a room with people to bounce suggestions off of, to look at paperwork, and feel the paper in their hands. They need to hear someone’s inflection to establish what’s right.”
Marleen Levi, president of a seven-member board at a 75-unit co-op in Brooklyn, uses e-mail to follow up between meetings. But she will not let electronic communication replace regular board gatherings. “When we are not in crisis, we meet every six or seven weeks,” she says. “We sometimes have special meetings to discuss a project, like a new roof, new sidewalks, or elevator repairs.”
Despite the relative infrequency of board meetings, Levi believes in-person confabs have palpable advantages: they allow members to evaluate body language, she says, as well as facial expressions. “People can see a questioning look, something that cannot be done via written communications.”
Warren Schreiber, president of a 200-unit Queens co-op, offers a case in point. His board meets monthly, with additional gatherings as needed, using an agenda he develops in consultation with committee chairs. Once a year, the nine-member board – and three nonvoting associate members – creates a list of improvements it would like to see.
“We take this wish list, discuss it, and pick one or two items as goals for the next year,” Schreiber says. “This is on top of routine maintenance and debating civic involvement” – from development of the nearby decommissioned Fort Totten military base to scheduling electoral forums. The free flow of ideas regarding changes taking place in the neighborhood gives members a chance to trade ideas and think about the type of community they favor.
That said, conversations need to be focused and in-person meetings need to run efficiently. Indeed, productive meetings foster the desire to participate. According to the Center for Community Change’s Guide to Good Meetings, it is imperative that boards remember that in-person meetings are the midpoint between preparation and follow-up. They also advise chairs to make sure that they start and stop on time. Agendas should be reviewed beforehand, everyone should have a chance to air his or her views, and digressions should be cut off. Other suggestions include not allowing one person to dominate or disrupt; finishing one thing before moving to the next; scheduling future meetings before leaving; and giving people a “last call” to speak. Finally, keeping a sense of humor is mandatory since it will make board participation enjoyable and help members keep long- and short-term goals in focus.
“One of the pleasures of being on a co-op or condo board,” says Cooper-Levy, “is that you’re participating in the most democratic form of living possible. You have direct input into something that touches you every day.”