Civic Responsibility in an SOC World–How to Recall a Board

[Original Post September 9, 2009]

Since the launch of the book, we’ve received a number of comments from readers who have expressed desperation at the state of their shared ownership community, especially the condition of the board of directors (usually as a tyrannical dictatorship spending their money at will and ignoring every rule in the house).  Now, these complaints tend to be occasionally overstated (I know from the hyperbolic criticisms that have been thrown at my own board), but there’s no question that SOC boards exist that do seem to pattern themselves after popular South American dictators.   The constant question that arises in these situations is how do we fix it?  How do we bring them down?  While the answer to that question, recall, is simple, the reality is often complex, so I thought I’d write a bit about our own civic responsibility in the modern age of SOCs.

In a traditional 1950s suburb, being a good neighbor, a good citizen of the community, required little more than pleasantries and an occasional favor.  But ownership of property in common with your neighbors introduced a totally different social dynamic into neighborhoods.  Volunteer board members, many of whom have no financial or business training, are expected to run a sometimes large and complex business that is the typical SOC operating association.  These communities do not self-select motivated members who are competent to run a large non-profit business.  Sometimes, there is not a single owner who has the skills ordinarily required to be a director of a corporation.  That, in and of itself, is an enormous problem for SOCs.  Over time, some board members take the opportunity to educate themselves and become spectacular directors, some learn just enough to get by, and undoubtedly there are some who have no interest in, nor aptitude for, learning how to run a business.  There is no question, however, that the health and success of an SOC is directly related to the competency of the board of directors.

So let’s assume for the moment that you live in an SOC with the board from hell–they’ve been ignoring the rules for years, they appear to be siphoning off funds, or at least turning their heads at bookkeeping irregularities, and the property has gone into total disrepair.  How do you, as a single owner, break the cycle and bring order back to your community?

First, remember that, universally, a motivated SOC ownership may recall a board of directors, for any or no reason, by vote of a majority of its members.  No question, this is easier said than done.  In many communities it is extremely hard to motivate owners to get involved in the SOC, which is viewed as an unwelcome and unnecessary intrusion into their otherwise complex lives (you do tend to wonder, of course, why buyers never consider that SOCs are not like traditional communities–it’s part of why we wrote our book).  It’s not uncommon for an SOC to never hold an annual meeting, despite the requirement to do so, because of disinterest on the part of the community.  Staging a recall, therefore, takes motivated leaders and a concerted pr campaign.  Let me give you some ideas.

To begin with, someone has to take charge, and that person might very well have to be you.  The concept of SOCs introduces civic involvement on a much smaller scale than ever before.  Unlike municipal governments, where civic volunteers are paid for their good deed, SOCs are a pure democratic society, and they require someone to step up and take the reigns.  Everyone has some sort of skill that would be helpful in community organization.  Perhaps you’re a good writer, or a good speaker.  Maybe you’re an artist who can prepare fliers or even design a website.  Maybe your skill is simply being friendly, and you can offer your time to visit neighbors and explain to them, face to face, what’s going on in your community.

The first step is for a person or a like-minded group to organize themselves an an opposition force.  These people should meet, discuss their goals (anything from influencing the board to removing them) and then start plotting strategy.  Recalling a board is a true political exercise!  It’s no different than the political battles you see during national elections, just with fewer funds.  Start by educating your neighbors about the problems that exist in the SOC.  Be very careful not to toss around wild accusations, or you may very well be guilty of libel.  Instead, access the records of the association and compile information about their budgeting, bookkeeping and expenditures.  Note anything that looks unusual.  Make a master list of complaints, and then compile those into easily understandable bullet points.  You want to make the information as understandable as possible, and get your neighbors motivated by the facts.  True, there are always some who won’t care, but if the board’s actions are truly egregious, you should be able to motivate a majority.

But how do you get your message out?  You can learn lessons from President Obama’s 2008 campaign.  Prepare a flier with the basic issues laid out and have volunteers spread throughout the community, talking to neighbors.  If you’re in a condominium, park yourself in the lobby and hand out fliers as people get home from work–you have a right to free assembly in most situations.  Set up a website with a catchy title, like www.recalloceanboard.com.  Even if you don’t have a web designer or a lick of experience, there are free programs on the web that will allow you to set up a nice looking website where you can post your arguments.  And as you reach your neighbors, try to get them actively involved, as well.  Ask if they have any skills that might help organize the community.  Maybe they know a lawyer who can help out the opposition group!  Remember that, under most laws, you have access to the addresses and phone numbers of the other owners in the community, so you have the right to send out a flier or, if you think you can be unobtrusive, give your neighbors a call.

At some point during this process, it may be necessary to pick among the community organizers to determine who will run for the new board once the old directors are removed.  Again, it may just be a basic civic responsibility that a motivated and qualified citizen throw their hat in the ring for the job.  It will be easier to motivate owners to follow your cause if you have already chosen a replacement board, laid out their qualifications and discussed, in detail, what changes will be made if the recall is successful.  And be a clever marketer!  Information given to owners should be short, sweet and to the point.  Tell them how they will benefit from the change, and what will happen to their investment if nothing is done.

What if you are scared that the old board will retaliate against you, and you don’t want to make waves?  This part gets a little tricky.  Certainly, you can prepare fliers and a website anonymously, and may be able to motivate owners that way.  But any good movement requires at least one public leader, and the recall simply may not succeed unless someone is brave enough to take charge.  If a board member threatens violence, call the police.  If your home or car is vandalized, call the police.  Chances are, these crimes will be easily traced to the few motivated suspects.  Sometimes civic responsibility requires bravery.  Even board members have to regularly deal with threats, and sometimes even property damage and violence.  The key is to stand tall, don’t back down, and report even the slightest infraction to the authorities.

Just a note–there are people out there who are unstable, and do not follow the normal rules of personal responsibility.  If an angry owner or board member were to truly threaten you with violence, ie, leave a threatening letter or even brandish a weapon, take it seriously.  These are crimes, and they can be prosecuted.  Get a restraining order, make sure your alarms are all working properly, and be vigilant.  But by the same token, living a terrified life is no life at all.  Sometimes, you just have to take a leap of faith and hope for the best.

So after months of community organization, fliers, websites, personal meetings, phone calls and the like, you believe you’ve organized a large enough group to effect a recall.  Go to management, call a special meeting (which usually requires the written assent of some small percentage of owners), and tighten your message.  The special meeting is the battle royale!  Make sure you have facts to back up all allegations, that your presentation is water tight and that you clearly explain the problems the community is encountering and how you and your group intend to solve those problems.  Get as many supporters to attend the meeting as possible, and make your case.  If you’ve organized properly, you should know in advance whether you are likely to win the recall, but sometimes votes change, and it often comes down to the wire.

If you win…congrats!  Do a better job than your predecessors–it’s a far harder task than it seems.  And if you lose, remember that you’ve knocked the board back on their heels, and they’re probably scared.  There’s a good chance they’ll clean up their act, but if not, keep going to meetings and calling their bluff, and when the next election rolls around you’ll be a well known commodity who is likely to earn a spot on the board.  Sometimes, change must come from within, and it doesn’t always happen in a day.  So keep plugging away, stay involved, and good luck!

One Response to “Civic Responsibility in an SOC World–How to Recall a Board”

  1. admin says:

    Thanks very much, glad you found it helpful. :) Sorry for the late response, 99% of comments I get are spam for drugs.

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