Tom Soter and Bill Morris in Board Operations on September 13, 2012
"I make sure I sit in the interviews with prospective buyers so I know why people want to buy into the building," says Vercesi, who owned a nearby hardware store for 40 years before selling it three years ago. "You've got to be cognizant of the feelings of the people."
Several recent buyers, for instance, stated during their interviews that a major attraction was the building's "no-dogs" policy. That indicated to Vercesi that any move to change the policy would have to be handled with extreme care.
"Even if the majority of the board is for something," he says, "they could be in the minority of the 80 units in the building. So when you make a decision, you have to make sure you're representing the majority of the shareholders. That's hard to do."
You need to get to know your neighbors and then listen to them, he says. It helps that he's been in the building for half a century.
Davison Paull, an attorney, has been president of his co-op's board since 2009, and he put in a dozen years of board service at his previous building. In all those years he learned a few things, And in his current building, a 49-unit, century-old mid-rise on the Upper West Side, he has developed a leadership philosophy that can be boiled down to this simple formula: Be a diplomat — up to a point.
"My main role is to make sure everyone who wants to talk at a meeting gets to talk — once — so we don't spend more time than we need to on an issue," Paull says. "Everyone can identify problems. But if someone has a problem, I invite them to propose a solution. I don't want meetings to become a forum for general gripes. If, after listening, I see a clear path forward, then I make a suggestion and bring it to a vote."
Call it diplomacy with an expiration date.
Maria Civille has lived in a 116-unit co-op on Staten Island with to-die-for views of New York Harbor and the downtown Manhattan skyline for some time. She sensed that the building was "kind of stale." The lobby was drab, there was nothing inspiring about the public spaces and, as she soon learned, the board had been entrenched for years.
Civille, a nurse, started talking with neighbors who shared her misgivings. Then she started sitting in on board meetings, studying the corporation's books, and attending seminars. She learned that the co-op's reserve fund was under $100,000, which meant the board had to levy balloon assessments for all major capital improvements.
Civille and a group of concerned shareholders asked a lawyer what they should do about the situation, and he told them to try to take control of the board. Civille was elected in 2007 and became president a year later, when she and her fellow concerned shareholders gained control of the seven-member board. They promptly brought in a new property manager and a new superintendent, reduced payroll, and took over a major brick-repointing job.
Since then, the board has imposed a relatively painless four percent assessment from March through December every year, a move that has boosted the reserve fund to $450,000 and gotten rid of regular balloon assessments — even as the co-op has done major work on the roof, sidewalks, fences, landscaping, and lobby.
"What I learned was that the board has to be highly involved and put a face on the corporation," Civille says. "You can't just hire a contractor and not be there during the work. Otherwise, for them it's just another job. If you're hands-on and visible, they're going to do the job right."
It wasn't all she learned.
"The other lesson I learned is to look for local professionals and establish a relationship," she says. "We don't just follow the management company's referrals, and we're not using plumbers or electricians or contractors from Long Island. This board is transparent. Since we got elected, things have definitely changed.
Photographs by Tom Soter and Jennifer Wu
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