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Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

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ARCHIVE ARTICLE

The Man With the Impish Grin

Tony DePietro, Board Secretary
Renaissance Resident since: 1990
Joined Board: 2004

Studying sociology and then teaching in New York City public schools for 28 years taught Tony DePietro a thing or two about people. Moving into a co-op taught him something new: when someone won’t tell you where the money’s going, it’s probably going somewhere bad.

That lesson unfolded after DePietro, now 77 and retired, moved into the Diplomat, a 95-unit co-op in Freeport, Long Island, in 1990. He soon noticed that the garbage wasn’t getting picked up and the grounds weren’t being maintained. Curious why his maintenance payments weren’t covering such basic services, he asked to see the financial records. He was rebuffed by the board president, the other six board members, and the accountant. He wrote to the attorney general, who replied that only the board could provide the information DePietro was seeking.

“So, I set out to find out what was going on,” says DePietro, with dancing eyes and an impish grin, One day the property manager told him he was asking the right questions, and she pointedly left the financial report open in the boardroom while she went to the bathroom. DePietro was stunned by what was in the report: the president was not paying maintenance or late fees, nor was she paying for her parking space. The president also authorized the purchase of a foreclosed apartment at a below-market price, then allowed the buyer to flip the apartment for a $20,000 profit six months later, in violation of co-op rules. The board had just refinanced the mortgage on less than favorable terms. “What I found out,” DePietro says, “was that the board president was siphoning money for her personal use.”

Tony DePietro grew up in blue-collar Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, when it was still making steel, and he wasn’t going to lie down for anybody. He started distributing notes about his findings to his fellow shareholders, asking why board members were in arrears and not being charged late fees, why the president wasn’t paying for parking, and other leading questions. At the 2004 annual meeting there was a big turnout and a lot of shouting. DePietro and six others were voted in, and the existing board was shown the door.

After DePietro was named secretary, one of the first things the new board did was to celebrate the co-op’s rebirth by changing its name to the Renaissance. Then it got busy with more substantive work, such as going after arrears. When the former board president sold her apartment, the board saw to it that the buyer paid $46,000 of the sale price directly to the co-op. Meanwhile, the sponsor started selling off its 24 apartments, which greatly improved the co-op’s standing with banks.

That money was not enough to tackle the backlog of problems, however, so the board was forced to levy an assessment and increase maintenance by 5 percent. As arrears were collected and the finances stabilized, the board was able to repay shareholders for the assessment – while working to turn the property around. The roof was replaced, the lobby and hallways were redone, security cameras were installed, the parking lot was repaved, elevators were updated, and a storage room was converted into the boardroom. The party room is now being renovated. The property sparkles.

It wasn’t magic, according to DePietro; it was a simple shift in the co-op’s culture. “When I got here,” he says, “the board president did everything and the board trusted her. We now have a policy of total transparency. Everything we discuss, every decision we make – it will be in the minutes of our monthly meeting because shareholders have a right to know what we’re doing with their money. We’re not hiding anything.”

To prove his point, DePietro shows off the most recent of his monthly minutes – seven dense pages of figures, notes on discussions, and the results of votes. Back in the day, the minutes were maybe a paragraph.“Tony is extremely detail-oriented,” says Paul Yaworski, vice president of operations at Alexander Wolf & Company, who has managed the Renaissance since 2004. “His level of disclosure is actually a point of friendly disagreement between us, because it can set a board up for litigation. But I’ve developed a lot of respect for what this board does. They’re honorable people acting in the best interests of the property.”

Is it possible, as some attorneys suggest, for a board to be too transparent? “No, not as long as they’re being truthful and accurate,” DePietro insists. “Our whole board voted to go against our attorneys’ advice and make the minutes and financial records available to shareholders. Given our history, we feel shareholders are entitled to that information.”

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