Condo and HOA Commandos–How to Avoid Being One

This blog topic is addressed mainly to board members around the country, but it will be interesting to everyone who lives in a Shared Ownership Community (SOC–condo, co-op or HOA).  In reading a number of other condo blogs, I’ve noticed in the comments section that one negative term gets thrown around pretty consistently–Condo Commando.  The question today is, what is a condo commando, and how can you avoid becoming one?

Perhaps since the invention of condominiums (well, maybe a day afterwards), people have been using the term “Condo Commando” to describe the exploits of a certain group of condo owners or board members.  The problem is that the term has never really been well defined.  For example, the anti-condo/hoa crowd uses the term to describe pretty much every condo board member who would deign to enforce a rule or regulation.  In their parlance, every single board member in the country is a “condo commando,” and they’re all worthy of scorn.  To others, condo commandos are those board members who attempt to use the condominium association for personal gain, using threats and false complaints to abuse particular owners.  And to some, condo commandos are the busybodies, whether on the board or not, who take note of every slip and infraction in the community to serve as grist for the rumor mill.

Whatever your definition of condo commando, however, it’s clear that it’s not intended as a compliment.  In the Toronto Star, one writer defined commandos as:

def. n. An egocentric person on a condominium’s board of directors who rules by intimidation, putting his/her interests ahead of others, abusive to the property manager and any board member who gets in the way. Dominates meetings, won’t let others speak. Can be prone to angry outbursts

Now, ignoring for the moment those people who use the term to refer to anyone who tries to enforce a rule or regulation in a condo or HOA (because, frankly, every board member has a legal responsibility to do so), the term condo commando as it’s most frequently used seems to have a few common characteristics.  A commando:

  • overuses legal options to deal with disputes
  • is power hungry
  • fails to follow proper corporate procedure
  • enforces rules arbitrarily
  • accepts kickbacks

Pretty clearly these are all things to avoid, but let’s talk a bit about each one individually and see how we can avoid falling into the commando trap.

Overuses Legal Options to Deal With Disputes–This is a common complaint among ordinary residents who feel that their association is constantly harassing them with threats of legal action.  And certainly, there are plenty of board members around the country who feel that “sue first, sue later” is always the best policy.  But if you’re a board member, remember that lawsuits are really, really expensive.  Before resorting to a lawsuit or legal action on any issue, try to exhaust every other avenue.  Start by having your manager talk with the violating owner–sometimes that alone will solve the problem.  Next, look to your fining procedure or your grievance committee for possible non-legal enforcement methods.  Then, consider whether mediation or arbitration is a legitimate option.  Only after an owner has consistently ignored all attempts to modify their behavior should the board resort to legal resolution.

That having been said, it’s important for owners to remember that they DO have responsibilities, including paying maintenance and following the rules and covenants of the community, and that sometimes the only remedy available to SOCs is to bring the owner to court to compel them to act in a particular manner.  Certainly, given the current financial climate liens and foreclosure actions may be the only collections remedy that is available to boards (if you’re interested in collections specifically, check out my past blogs on the issue).  Just because a board has authorized a lawsuit doesn’t make them “condo commandos”.

Power Hungry–In our book, New Neighborhoods, we talk a bit about what we call the “high school election model.”  Condo elections tend to bring out some unpleasant characteristics in otherwise perfectly reasonable people who are campaigning for an elected position for the first time since high school.  Some of these people are inevitably those who feel that they deserve to be in a leadership position.  And for a few, especially those who felt cheated out of a leadership position earlier in life, they take to board membership with an unhealthy zeal.  To paraphrase one web commenter, the best board members are often those who don’t want to be on the board.  For those who don’t respect the democratic system that is inherent in any SOC, leadership can easily be confused with control.  The power hungry commando will often be a micromanager, taking it upon him or herself to have the final say on any issue that arises in the community.  She may view herself as a Solomonesque arbiter of disputes between neighbors.  He will probably burn through managers at a rapid clip.  This type of commando can be especially dangerous if the rest of the board is particularly wishy-washy and refuses to stand up to the “bully.”

For anyone serving on a board, it’s imperative to remember that board service is a civic duty–one that requires personal sacrifice and some humility.  It’s not an opportunity to live out regal fantasies or dictatorial dreams.  The board of a condo, co-op or HOA is an elected, representative body that has certain responsibilities to the association.  Think John Adams, rather than Fidel Castro.  Please, please don’t serve on a board because you think you deserve to be a leader, or that you’re the only person who could possibly be in charge.  Serve because you think you can do a good job for your community.

Fails to Follow Proper Corporate Procedure–by this we’re talking about all of the corporate niceties that make any business run smoothly: hiring the right people (and letting them do their jobs without micromanaging them), engaging in formal bidding for large projects, proper budgeting, record keeping and finance, and transparency to the shareholders (the owners).  Condos and HOAs are, at their most basic level, non-profit businesses, and they must be run like businesses.  Keeping a condominium association afloat is not the same as doing your personal finances.  Especially in the largest associations (where budgets can often be in the millions of dollars) you need qualified and properly trained employees to run the association.  Large construction projects should be bid to multiple contractors, and depending on the scope traditional blind bidding procedures should at least be considered.

Enforces Rules Arbitrarily–nearly all SOCs have a set of rules and covenants that must be followed in the community, and that inevitably brings up an issue of enforcement.  Unfortunately, it seems to be very, very hard for ordinary people to be completely neutral when it comes to rules enforcement–and yet, complete neutrality is what is both morally appropriate and expected under the law.  The principle of selective enforcement states (loosely) that an owner who is breaking the rules can defend himself against enforcement of the violation if he can prove that the rule has not been enforced consistently.  So it’s not ok for the president of an association to ignore his best friend’s kitty if the condominium has a no-pet rule, but then try to enforce that rule against other residents.  Board members should also never use threats of enforcement to attempt to manipulate owners.  In my opinion, the best policy is to simply instruct management to enforce every rule in the community equally, across the board, against every owner (even other board members).  Though there are some who will still accuse a totally neutral board member of being a “commando” for enforcing rules in the first place, you simply can’t please all of the people all of the time, and consistent, across-the-board enforcement of rules is perfectly reasonable in an SOC setting.

Accepts Kickbacks–OK, so this one really should be a no brainer, but just for the sake of saying so, accepting money from a contractor for granting them a contract is at best totally unethical, and in many states can be a crime.  You should be receiving NO compensation for your service to your community, either from the association itself or from third parties.  On the other hand, any board member can expect to be accused of stealing or accepting kickbacks at least once in their term of service–it’s inevitable that someone in your community will think that you are stealing simply because you are in a position to do so (a lot of people seem to have a pretty dire world view).  So in short, don’t steal, but don’t get upset when someone inevitably accuses you of doing so.

So there you have it–five of the most common reasons that board members sink into the “condo commando” pitfall and some thoughts on how to avoid them.  And don’t listen to the haters–condos and HOAs provide a great lifestyle for millions of Americans, and there are hundreds of thousands of hard-working, reasonable and fair board members out there as well.  Don’t let a few bad seeds spoil the entire SOC apple.

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