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Habitat Magazine July/August 2020 free digital issue

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ARCHIVE ARTICLE

You Don’t Have to Please All the People

Gerry Fifer
President, 318 WEST 100 Condominium Association

 

The hardest thing about being on the board is dealing with the unrealistic expectations of the owners, both on and off the board. I’m a rationalist. I try to solve problems by learning all that I can, and then applying my knowledge to the facts. But people often react emotionally to what they think will affect them. As someone once said, “When emotions are high, intelligence is low.” It’s a continuing challenge to persuade people to be open to what they might not want to hear, while operating within the confines of the board’s authority. Understanding “governance” – the role of the board – is crucial.

First, a bit of background. I moved into my condominium in 1990, during the last major market downturn. I had been living in a rent-controlled studio apartment for years (right around the corner, in fact). The softening market allowed me to purchase what had previously been beyond my reach: a charming two-bedroom unit in a 100-year-old, 32-unit building on a quiet street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive.

Not long after I arrived, the president of the board approached me about filling a vacancy. I demurred, thinking myself unqualified. I’m a lawyer specializing in intellectual property and had never been on a board like this. Neither had the other board members, she assured me. So I agreed. It seems to have worked out: I’ve been on my condo board for over 15 years and have been president for the past six.

I found that there was a vast amount to learn and keep up with in many areas: finance, law, construction, management, and public relations. I have a passion (some would call it mania) for research, and I’m a stickler for detail. These have served me well in educating myself and everyone around me whenever I can. If you’re on the board, you have an obligation to get as much information as you can.

Boards have to abide by rules, as well as enforce them. It’s very hard to separate your own self-interest from what will benefit the condo as a whole. But board members have a fiduciary duty to do just that. Boards also need specific authority (from the law and the governing documents of the co-op or condo) to act. Yet a surprising number of boards get into trouble by disregarding these principles.

A board is not like Congress. Even if you were elected by a constituency, once on the board you must work for the overall good of the condo, and not promote special treatment for an individual owner or group of owners. Indeed, the law forbids such favoritism. Often boards are seen as high-handed by those who elected them. But my board members sometimes have the mistaken notion that their role is to please everybody. It’s not. A hotel staff tries to please guests. A condo board is there to maintain an asset. It’s a different business model. Our job is to improve the building as a whole. Yet to do that, you have to be willing to be unpopular.

For their part, some owners (without realizing it) are inconsistent about procedure. When content, they let the board do its job. When dissatisfied, they accuse the board of being “undemocratic.” They suddenly want to make decisions that are the province of the board. As someone else once said, “Democracy means having your say, not always getting your way.” They forget that buying their units meant accepting the bylaws, which mandate how the condo is governed. Their recourse is to replace board members at the next election not to demand an arbitrary suspension of lawful procedure.

Conversely, boards sometimes try to evade difficult decisions by basing them on a poll of owners. While occasionally appropriate, this approach is misguided. What individual owners demand, especially in the short term, is not always in the best interest of the condo as a whole. What’s more, a board can never legally shift its responsibility elsewhere: liability for a bad decision would not be avoided by reliance on a poll. Knowing owners’ views is certainly useful, but the buck really does stop with us.

Finally, being on the board teaches you how to improve your interpersonal skills. I never considered myself a political person before, but once you’re on the board, you learn that you have to be: you have to learn how to deal with divergent opinions and conflict and learn how to resolve both in a non-violent, civil, and constructive way. That can take much time and effort but in the end can leave you with a great sense of accomplishment. That’s why, despite the difficulties, I still serve.

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