William D. McCracken in Board Operations on May 17, 2022
Serving on a co-op or condo board in New York City requires a surprising range of knowledge and skills. Yet every year, thousands of people who have absolutely no experience managing buildings join co-op and condo boards and are then expected to make intelligent judgments that affect the value of their (and their neighbors’) most important assets as well as the quality of people’s lives. How can this system possibly work?
The answer is that co-op and condo boards rely on advice from professionals to help them manage their buildings. That means that choosing the right people — lawyers, engineers, architects, accountants and others — takes on paramount importance. But after they’ve chosen those experts, how can board members be sure they’re getting good advice from them? Here’s how:
Listen to your professionals — but listen critically. While it’s a given that board members should listen to their professionals, it does not follow that they should always take their advice at face value. Professionals are not infallible. Sometimes, their advice is sound as far as it goes, but the person has not grasped all of the nuances of the situation. It’s up to board members to listen critically to make sure the professional’s advice is based on the specific facts of a given situation.
Strike a balance. Many board members have extensive experience in building management from their long-term service on the board, or from their own careers, or both. For them, there is a different balance to be struck. Board experience is invaluable, but it should never preclude openness to professional advice. For example, the long-serving board member who has lived through three or four prior cycles of mandatory facade repair work will rightly feel more comfortable discussing the scope of the next facade repair project than a board novice who has never dealt with one. Even so, the architect overseeing the project will have overseen dozens, if not hundreds, of facade projects, and he or she will also be familiar with the ever-changing regulations relating to facade maintenance. Thus, even the most experienced board member should be prepared to defer to professional advice. (Another consideration: as a legal matter, boards that ignore professional advice without a good reason do so at their peril.)
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Insist that your professionals listen to you. The best way to ensure you get good advice is to have good professionals giving it. This is easier said than done. It’s not just that the professionals need to be competent in their fields, but they also need to understand who their clients are. As we know, co-op and condo boards are composed of volunteers who may or may not have building management experience. That means their professionals have to be able to explain technical concepts to them. Good advice is of little use if professionals cannot explain the reasoning behind it. If professionals define their role too narrowly and are unable to guide co-op and condo decision-making on a practical level, then they may not be the right choice despite otherwise impressive expertise.
Lean into the job, and don’t pass the buck. A novice board member asked to choose a facade repair contractor may never have heard of Requests for Proposals or the AIA contract form. For such a board member, the temptation may be simply to rely on the professionals to choose the contractor. This is a mistake. Board members may not have expertise in the issue at hand, but they are almost invariably successful people capable of sound, independent judgment. Moreover, they’re capable of learning on the job, they have a commitment to the building and, presumably, the confidence of their neighbors who elected them. These are vital assets. The professional’s role is not to make decisions for the board; it’s to offer expert advice and guidance. The buck stops, always, with the board.
William D. McCracken is a partner at the law firm Ganfer Shore Leeds & Zauderer.
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