Many cooperatives and condominiums suffer from an inability to get qualified people to serve on their boards. And for many who do, it is a brief affair: they leave after one or two years, swearing never to return. Although everyone should be able to join the board, it is helpful to have members with specific experience. But these are just the sort of folks who frequently refuse to serve by citing three reasons: potential liability, the mind-numbing length of the meetings, and the repetitiveness of the issues discussed.
Let’s examine this. Board members who complain that meetings are too long or repetitive are correct to be annoyed. It is one thing if meetings dealing with a major capital improvement or the annual budget process are long and somewhat repetitive; that is normal and appropriate. When every meeting becomes a marathon, however, busy board members feel their time can be better used elsewhere. We must face the reality that we all have time constraints for a volunteer board service, whether it is our family obligations, our jobs, hobbies, or other volunteer work. Members may feel that spending their free time on a board that only hears from the residents when they have a complaint is not worth the hassle. Why would a successful lawyer, accountant, architect, engineer, teacher, publicist, programmer, or insurance consultant want to put up with it?
That’s the question. When long meetings and repetition make qualified board members quit or refuse to run or serve, it can be a warning sign that something is very wrong. In my long experience in the co-op and condo world, I have seen many scenarios that might be causing the problem. Perhaps it is a board member who will continue to raise an issue until she gets her way. Or it could be a board member who does not attend every meeting and then wants to revisit issues that were already resolved. Alternatively – playing pop psychologist – it may be someone with an unhappy life who finds comfort in long meetings, or it could be someone with a job he hates so that it gives him a sense of control to make decisions affecting everyone else’s lives.
A long meeting could also be a sign that the board is unable to make decisions, or is working with professionals who fail to follow up. Whatever the reason, boards that face these issues and don’t deal with them hurt everyone. Who would want to serve on such a board?
Trim the Fat
Frankly (and this may shock many people), monthly meetings should not last longer than an hour unless there is a particular topic that needs to be addressed. The question is how to do it? Here are some techniques:
Impose a “three strikes and you’re out” policy. You can amend the bylaws so that members who miss more than three meetings in a 12-month period are deemed to have resigned. If a board member cannot find time to attend, perhaps she should not be a member.
Ensure follow-up. Part of the reason that issues never seem to be resolved is there is no follow-up. How often does the manager say: “I will speak to the superintendent” – or to the lawyer, accountant, engineer, contractor, or other professional – about some (de) pressing issue and, then, he apparently never does? (Saying, “I tried but no one ever got back to me.”) Or maybe the manager has an answer to the first question, but now a board member has follow-up questions.
One solution is to invite the super (or other professional) to attend the beginning of every board meeting and deal with operating issues before the board does anything else. The super can leave when all the questions are answered so the board can move on to the remaining business. Yes, the co-op or condo will have to pay for the time of any professionals it queries, but if you compare the cost of the professional and the aggregate time of the members of the board, the professional is reasonably priced. Also, it is cheaper to have a professional who has the experience to answer any questions accurately and quickly than having a professional who has a lower hourly rate but has to research the issue and spends two hours doing what could be done in fifteen minutes. I have long espoused the viewpoint that “the money value of time is important...” Everyone knows about the time value of money, but the money value of time is probably more relevant. It means if spending $100 saves you $1,000 in time, it is better to spend the money.
Meet at the managers for the annual budget. In terms of professionals, it also makes sense to have the meeting to discuss the budget at the managing agent’s office where you can have the budget analyst and other professionals attend the meeting. You also have access to the agent’s computer to run “what if?” scenarios.
Pass a “no reruns” resolution. To stop “die-hards” – you know, those members who want to “revisit” previous decisions – you can pass a resolution that no issue that has been decided upon can be revisited without the approval of a majority of the board or, at least, more than one member.
Know your rules. Finally, boards may be frequently revisiting the same issues because no one remembers or is aware that the board already has a policy regarding that issue. (That was the subject of “Memory Central,” Habitat, February 2015.)
Board service is a privilege and should not be a chore. Board meetings do not have to take on lives of their own. Be proactive and take the steps necessary to keep them focused and on target. You’ll be improving the operation of your board – and that’s something everyone will appreciate.