Board Members Just Want to be Loved, Is That So Wrong?

[Original Post August 17, 2009]

Welcome back to the New Neighborhoods blog!  Before we start, I want to direct everyone’s attention to a new resource on our website, Gary A. Poliakoff’s Hurricane and Disaster Preparedness and Recovery pamphlet.  You can find it in PDF format under “resources.”  This pamphlet is a great way to prepare yourself for the current storm season and to answer any questions you might have about disaster planning and recovery, written by one of the experts in the subject.

Out of all the topics discussed in our book, one of the most fascinating, in my opinion, concerns the social issues that arise out of condo, co-op or HOA ownership, and especially board membership.

I have read that the vast majority of marriages that fail do so because of financial issues.  That’s not really surprising–money (or lack thereof) is a great stress for most people, and opinions about how to manage finances differ wildly.

Knowing this, imagine for a moment that I asked you to purchase a car with your best friend.  Owning something as complex as a car raises numerous financial questions, including how to maintain the vehicle, when to schedule repairs, how to manage mileage and depreciation and how to best insure the investment.  To most, the thought of having to make such complex financial decisions with someone who is even as close as a best friend is extremely unappealing.

Now, instead of a car, what if I asked you to purchase a home with hundreds of strangers?  The thought probably makes you cringe–however, this is exactly what every single condo, co-op or HOA owner has done.  If you live in a shared ownership community, you’ve not only made one of the largest purchases of your life, you’ve done so with dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of people that you barely know.  Sometimes, it’s amazing that such a system of property ownership is not only common, but also extremely popular.

So given the difficult situation that all SOC owners face, imagine how tough it must be for the board members.  Most people hope to be on good terms with their neighbors.  But board members are tasked with making financial decisions that impact their entire community.  It’s simply not possible that every person in that community will agree with every decision made.  In many cases, it is inevitable that a large minority of the community will disagree with decisions made by the board members.  And in these cases the board members, who are most often well-meaning volunteers, come to be hated by at least a small percentage of their neighborhood.  Unfortunately, it’s an unavoidable reality–if you serve on a board, some of your neighbors will always dislike you.

A few months ago, while I was still serving as president of my condominium, I attended a grievance committee meeting as an observer and was approached by an owner that I had never met.  He explained to me that he had an excellent renter in his unit, but that the renter was getting a dog (renters are not allowed to own pets under our documents).  Given that the renter was such a great tenant, would I be willing to grant him an exception to our rule?

Now, anyone who has read our book knows that you can’t grant exceptions–if you do, you’re “selectively enforcing” the rule, and it becomes invalid (and totally unenforceable).  I tried to explain to this owner that, unfortunately, the board is not allowed to grant exceptions, and we would have to deny his request.

Almost immediately after I began to speak, the owner started shouting at me that I was “exactly like everyone said–you just say no, no, no to everything.  Well I’m done with you–I’m not talking to you anymore, thanks for nothing.”

Even though I was a seasoned board member, this conversation was a little shocking.  First, I wondered, do people really sit around talking about me, much less talking about the fact that I always say “no” to everything?  Had I developed a reputation as an ogre, a reviled “condo commando?”  And more than that, who was “everyone?”  Exactly how many of my neighbors held such a negative opinion of me that it actually came up in day-to-day discussions?

And what it really comes down to is this–like most people (and most board members), I try to be a nice person.  I don’t like making people’s lives difficult, or saying “no” all the time.  But I also have an obligation to make responsible decisions, and I take my “community service” very seriously.  So ultimately, there’s nothing I can do if even a large minority of my neighbors feel that I’m being unreasonable.  Truthfully, even if a majority of my fellow owners wanted me to violate a rule, I wouldn’t do so.  I would rather be removed from office by a recall than not satisfy my fiduciary duty to the association.  But that’s a very difficult position to take, and it’s hard to tell if the majority of board members around the country would feel the same way.  Just like politicians, at least some percentage of board volunteers are tempted to bow to public opinion, even if following that opinion would violate their responsibilities.

Ultimately, it takes a thick skin to serve as a board member, and many well-meaning volunteers have been chased out of office by the slings and arrows of their neighbors.  It’s a shame, but it’s just one of the inevitable quirks of sharing financial decisions with strangers.

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