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Habitat Magazine July/August 2020 free digital issue

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ARCHIVE ARTICLE

How Long Is Too Long? Serving on the Board

Choose the right fit for your building: staggered, limited, or open-ended.

News flash, The New York Times, December 4, 2005: “Twelve years after New York City voters adopted term limits for any of their local officials, the City Council is poised to allow its members to serve one more term – without asking voters how they feel about changing the term limits law.”

Imaginary news flash, December 5, 2005: “After decades of the status quo, New York City co-op shareholders rebelled. They insisted on limiting board service to just three consecutive three-month terms so that more shareholders could regularly get a chance to spend hours debating mundane issues for no pay, little thanks, and massive blame if they make a mistake. One co-op industry gadfly explained: ‘If it is long enough to give birth, nine months is long enough to serve your co-op.’ In fact, some co-ops voted to impose co-op board conscription so that all shareholders would be required to serve. And despite the main city council argument for deciding to extend their own terms – that the council needs continuity to ensure good government – some co-ops are staggering the terms so that each month one-third of the board members are up for election to the three-month terms.”

Every day, you hear more and more that co-ops should adopt term limits for board service to allow for new blood. Presumably, that is meant to develop new initiatives, bring varied perspectives, and review festering problems or discontent. Usually, this means that one or two shareholders at the annual meeting are frustrated that they cannot get themselves or an ally elected to the board. Not uncommonly, this follows some conflict by the proponent of co-op board term limits with an existing board member, whose term he would really like to eliminate, not just limit. Almost always, the board states that it will “take it under advisement at the first meeting after the current election,” which really means the directors will turn to it when pigs grow wings and start flying.

But if the city council is so cavalier about overruling the wishes of its voters on term limits in such a self-serving way, then maybe, just maybe, term limits do really constitute meaningful progress toward more responsive, effective and honest government – even at the co-op level.

I think not. The powers that be, including those who control them, find many ways to perpetuate their service and influence, even with any legally mandated turnover of seats of powers. And, in the process, experience and continuity are lost for no good reason. Some say term limits are actually anti-democratic because they deny voters their right to elect representatives of their choice.

Term limits for co-ops are a non-starter, in my opinion. Thankfully, co-op board members are usually quite content munching cookies at late night meetings instead of taking all-expenses-paid junkets to Scotland on the tab of the co-op world equivalent of Jack Abramoff. Instead of term limits for co-ops, I suggest a bit more good government. Co-ops valuing regular turnover in board members should make it easier for newcomers to become candidates, solicit proxies, and present their credentials. Then, at each election, shareholders will be able to choose, for some or all incumbents, even without term limits, to limit their terms – by voting them out.

Robert Tierman is a partner in the law firm of Litwin & Tierman.

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