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Brooklyn-born Richard Miller took charge when he felt his co-op was being mishandled.
AUTHORTom Soter, Richard Miller
Since becoming president of the board three years ago, Richard Miller has initiated a number of changes, including a successful smoking ban.
Richard Miller could be called the traveling man. That’s because the 65-year-old New Yorker has lived in France and Italy, among other locales. But for the last 22 years, the rolling stone has gathered some moss as a tenant-shareholder at Tower East, the 120-unit building at 190 East 72nd Street that was erected in 1961 as a cooperative. Blunt, Brooklyn-born Miller took over the president’s chair three years ago when he felt the co-op was being mishandled by the board. Since then, he’s initiated a number of changes, not the least of which was implementing a ban on cigarette smoking in the Tower East apartments. He spoke with Tom Soter just days after the ban was made official.
Tell me how the smoking ban happened.
It started, actually, with two of the nine board members who had complaints about smoke coming into the apartment and bothering the children. Then we started to get a few complaints from other people in the building about smoking. We went around to check and the odor [in places] was horrendous. We tried various remedies, like filters, but they didn’t help. We checked around to see what other buildings were doing and it seemed to be a trend, with more and more people, even rentals, putting bans on smoking. This was a year ago. We then went to our lawyers to see what we needed to do. Then we started to pass out information to the people in our building.
How did you do that?
Most of the building bans smoking already (New York City law prohibits smoking in a building’s public areas, including stairways and halls), so the only place you could smoke was within the individual apartments. We sent out e-mails to everyone, explaining what was going on. We had our annual meeting, where we discussed it. We also sent out a survey where we asked everyone to list their priorities: should we ban smoking immediately; should we give smokers a grace period; should we “grandfather” in the existing smokers?
Wouldn’t that last choice have effectively killed the purpose of the ban?
Yes. That’s why I don’t think it passed. Although we had a lot of support from the shareholders, we had actually a couple of tenants who were adamantly against the ban. Since they were not smokers, that didn’t make any sense to me.
I guess it was the principle of the thing.
Yeah, there were some protests as a matter of principle. When we had our annual meeting and when we started to bring it up to a discussion, we had some really vocal protests. In the end, we pretty much got the two-thirds vote in favor of it almost immediately. I was impressed by that. There is so much apathy in this town. Everyone was so apathetic and so spoiled and entitled, but they didn’t want to vote for the future of their own lives. Crazy. We had to contact them personally. We had to put personal pressure just to get the vote back. But it passed.
How do you run your board?
We have an agenda and anybody can put any agenda they want in the meeting. We have no restrictions; anything they want to talk about, we put on the agenda, and everybody says what they want to. It’s very informal, very open, and very friendly. We haven’t had any fights or arguments.
Let me tell you: a board can stick around for [what seems like] 100 years and will never change unless you have a revolution, which is what we did. The board was wasting money – the lobby redesign was one of the expenses that should have been a quarter of the price – and the maintenance was going through the roof. So we had a revolution and overturned the board. Six people were replaced and three of the old guard remained.
Do you have any previous experience in a leadership position?
I run the Gym Source, which is a chain of fitness equipment stores around the country. The problem with the boards at most co-ops is that they don’t really have much experience when it comes to practical matters. I have that practical experience.