Almost every manager experiences difficulties with Association members at some point in time, but board members can also catch their share of grief. Governing a homeowners’ association can be challenging. Though there are many personalities and attitudes to deal with, former board members who become argumentative and angry represent a special group, especially if they lose a contested election to someone holding an opposing view. Because of their former leadership role on the board, they can often develop a following of members. If they are particularly vocal in their disagreement, they can become disruptive to Association operations. Occasionally, some people even go a step further, carrying out completely inappropriate actions, such as sending wrathful emails or spreading untrue rumors.
An instance several years ago demonstrated to me how bad it can get. One board member was very insistent that, because the board had made a tax election to “roll over” excess income to the following year, the board was “required by (tax) law” to refund that excess to the members immediately. Another board member joined him in this interpretation. The board consulted with their CPA, who stated that there was no such requirement. But why let facts get in the way? Still upset that he had lost a contested election, he became even more vocal as a former board member.
Inappropriate activities followed, including sending accusatory emails to board members, spreading false rumors, disrupting board meetings, harassing professionals hired by the Association, establishing an “anti-Association” website which included statements taken out of context (partial sentences grabbed from his opponents that were reconstructed to indicate the exact opposite of what was said), and even making complaints of fraud to the police department and IRS. This continued for months because, although every professional consulted with disagreed with this former board member, he refused to accept any position other than the one he had staked out. The complaint to the IRS actually resulted in an IRS audit that cost the Association a small amount of money. The IRS audit defense costs were higher than the tax paid.
It also seemed that any member that had a complaint against the Association for any reason joined with this individual, because he was “leading the charge” against the existing board. The net result was that this individual created considerable acrimony in the Association, and ended up costing all members money because of his antics. But because he had developed a loyal following, he was actually re-elected to the board at the next election. That slowed him down, but at least he now had a voice back on the board. It was widely believed that he had made so much noise as a former board member just to keep the spotlight on himself.
That series of events caught the Association somewhat unprepared to respond to those kinds of personal attacks against board members. Although it was a little too late to make a difference in the above instance, that Association later developed a set of general guidelines for the Association and board members to follow:
- Always take the high road. Don’t get embroiled in heated discussions. Stick to the facts.
- Always refer to the Association documents for support of positions taken by the Association. Try to answer any questions or comments by applying them to a rule or regulation within the documents.
- Have a process in place for logging and responding to member complaints.
- Board members should be addressed as a unit and not individually. Bring all complaints to the board meeting for discussion. If they are unjustified, they can be acknowledged, placed in the minutes, and then tabled. If the complaint is found justified, discuss it. Then discuss how to fix the issue and follow through.
- If a resident feels the Board has broken any rules, it is his or her job to prove so. Documentation is the key to support the Association’s actions.
- If incorrect information is being provided to members by a third party, the Association can respond with newsletters or notices that state the facts. These communications should be careful to not further inflame a situation.
- The Board’s actions should be open and transparent. Boards are allowed executive session meetings only for very limited purposes. All other business should be conducted in open session, with due notice to members of matters to be discussed.
- Board members have a duty of confidentiality to the Association and other board members.
Open communication with the community is important at all times, but particularly when unfounded accusations are made. The Association should always keep members informed about what is happening, or not happening, within the community. The Board is the voice of the community. They have been voted to a position of authority and leadership, and it is their job to keep members up to speed on all actions taken by the Board. Minutes of meetings must be available, and all meetings should be open. Do not do anything in secrecy unless you are discussing personnel, litigation, or contract negotiations. Always try to be as transparent as possible.
One caveat relates to the “send all” option in email communications. If you have seen the television commercial regarding the guy trying to grab everybody’s computer before they can read the email he sent after inadvertently hitting “send all,” you understand. One advantage of email communications is that email is a quick response vehicle and establishes a permanent record that, while it can be misunderstood or misconstrued, can’t be modified by a recipient to say something else entirely. One disadvantage of email communications is that email establishes a permanent record that may not be what you really wanted to say. Emotions and context aren’t communicated in email, just text. Email can be easily misconstrued. It’s best to always stop, count to ten, and then compose your email. It’s also always a good idea to have a separate email account for Association business. Keep it separate from your personal email account. Your email is discoverable in the event of litigation.
Remember that there will be homeowners with differing opinions. That’s generally a good thing, as it forces all parties to consider alternate positions that they may not have considered. Listen to the homeowners’ concerns and opinions. Consider if they can easily be resolved. Consider how many people feel an issue is important. Consider if actions are cost-effective and reasonable.
Some people can go too far. The situation described above is a clear example of someone with whom you could not reason. If a board member is a victim of libel or slander, then it’s time to consult with an attorney to discuss options. It’s even been suggested that in more extreme situations, it may be helpful to hire a mediator to assist in the communication and resolution process.
No matter how the situation arises, board members were elected to a position of leadership because people thought they could do the job. Board members should lead with patience and professionalism, and more importantly, integrity.
Written by Chuck Miller