Q&A with Gerry Fifer
Winning isn’t everything. In fact, there is a lot you can learn from losing.
Gerry Fifer felt like she had been sandbagged. She was the long-time president of her condominium on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and, in her mind, things were running smoothly on the six-person board. Then, the annual election arrived and with it came a board member armed with a massive number of proxies. He used the votes to replace Fifer and two other new board members with himself and two new members. This rebel member, who subsequently became president, had contacted a majority of the unit-holders, making charges and complaints that Fifer only heard about shortly before the annual meeting. She attempted to refute them, but found that it had been left too late. The owners listened politely but had made up their minds. Fifer and her colleagues were out. A new day had arrived.
Fifer was initially bitter but now thinks her experience holds lessons for others. Although retaining a seat on the board is usually not an issue – recruiting new board members and stepping down before burning out is the more likely scenario – Fifer’s experience should instruct every board member on what a diligent director should do to satisfy his or her constituents and also offer insights on how to properly perform his or her duties as a director. As Fifer explained in the following interview with Habitat’s Tom Soter, “Don’t expect most unit-owners to be interested in things other than their day-to-day comfort and whatever they believe directly affects them. Board governance and ethics are the sort of things that might seem too abstract to people but are actually extremely important if you’re trying to run a co-op or a condo properly.” Excerpts from the interview follow.
You lost the election in your building because your opponents collected a majority of proxies. Why didn’t you collect proxies?
I would always get proxies from the people who weren’t living in the building. But in all these years, we’ve hardly ever had a contested election, and enough people would show up at the meetings, so we never got proxies from everybody else. However, collecting them, regardless of apparent need, is a very good idea.
Another point: it’s important to promote the activities of the hardworking board while they’re happening, or soon after, because people generally don’t realize how much work it is and if things improve and are running smoothly for a couple of years, they can start taking you for granted.
Are you talking about spin?
No, no, that’s a separate point. Spin to me is a matter of presenting bad news or controversial proposals in a way that people are more likely to accept. The thing that’s been very hard for me personally is that I very much operate on a sort of rational, logical, analytical basis, and I always think that if reasonably intelligent people are presented with the facts and the right analysis, they’ll understand why you’re doing something. Unfortunately, very often that’s not the case. People react emotionally, and they react out of a sort of narrowly focused self-interest. Self-interest is fine – it’s understandable – but sometimes to me it’s short-sighted. I listened carefully to how our opponents were presenting things, and they were saying some of the same things we had said, but they packaged it in a way so that people didn’t object. That’s what I mean by spin. Which is totally different from self-promotion, which is saying to the unit-owners every so often, “Hey! You know, these are the good things we’ve been doing for you lately.”
If you’re going to be on the board, and especially if you’re the president, you may not want to be unpopular. But you have to expect to be unpopular sometimes. You have to expect that you cannot please everybody. That’s not your role. What’s in the best interest of the condo as a whole may not be in the best interest of individuals, and they may complain and you have to manage that. But in order to manage it properly, you have to understand this.
What else did you learn?
Don’t expect most unit-owners to be interested in matters other than [those involved in] their day-to-day comfort and [those] they believe directly affect them. Certainly, everybody, understandably, is interested in that. Things like board governance and ethics are the things that might seem too abstract to people but are actually extremely important if you’re trying to run a co-op or a condo properly. You can’t control everything no matter what you do. I always used to think that if I could only know enough and explain enough, and come up with the right way of presenting something, I could make everything right all around. Some things are just out of your hands.
Should you have kept your finger on the pulse of the building?
One should always do that. And in fact, that was not the problem here. Only a few months before the annual meeting, we, the prior board, held an informational meeting about a plumbing project, which was then our big expenditure, and it was going to cost more than we expected, so this was the bad news we were going to have to present at that meeting – we needed to raise more money, how were we going to do that, and so on. And there was very little objection at the meeting. People asked a lot of questions but it wasn’t contentious. Several unit-owners actually thanked me afterwards. Our managing agent even said that I seemed to have a lot of rapport with them. Things seemed to be in good shape as far as that went. What happened was that later these two board members mounted a sneak attack on me. And that’s when the whole attitude changed. I lost the finger on the pulse, but not through any fault of my own, but because they used deceitful tactics. I was painted in a really inaccurate manner, but I didn’t know about it so I couldn’t answer it until the annual meeting [by which time] people had [already] made up their minds. My detractors had circulated a letter behind my back, saying that I had made unauthorized decisions about settling a litigation, which, of course, would be a huge ethical violation, and that was just not true.
I asked some people who had always supported me in the past, “What happened? How could you believe this stuff?” And they said, that it never occurred to them that I hadn’t seen this [accusatory] letter. So, when they didn’t hear anything from me in response, they just took it at face value. That’s what I mean when I say if somebody pulls a so-called dirty trick like that, something deceitful, something clandestine, it’s hard to respond. People got this crazy letter and then they didn’t hear anything from me and they assumed, since it was circulated to most of the unit-owners, that I had seen it, and so had the other two incumbents. But the three of us never saw it. Our opponents made sure not to give it to us.
So, in the end, you should always try and evaluate your perspective. Because, what I realized was, it’s actually more important to me that I did something beneficial for the condo than that I stay on the board. The price of change was that I lost my seat. But I knew that the legal settlement that we achieved – which was the main thing that our opponents were trying to use to shoot me down – was absolutely crucial.
It seems like a difficult situation; if you had to do it again, was there anything you would have done in terms of trying to find out more about what was going on behind your back?
I probably would. I probably would be more suspicious. Here’s a phrase: try to be preemptively suspicious, figuring certain people are out to get me. I would assume even more nefariousness than I did at the time and try to find out if there was something going on.
Okay, so be constructively paranoid.
Yeah, that’s good. Constructively paranoid.