The Crossings at Haddon Hall Condominium Association in Apex, N.C., employs a committee it calls, for the lack of a better word, oversight. It comprises residents who always have a lot to say about what should be done at the community but aren’t exactly ready for a larger volunteer commitment.
“For whatever reason, joining the board is a ‘poison pill,’ but these residents were willing to join the committee,” says Ron Melzer, president of the Crossings. “It’s been a great success so far. The committee has presented many ideas to the board, most of which have been approved.”
The committee has advised the Crossings board on capital improvement plans and several projects around the community, such as a new streetlight at the property’s entrance, bulletin boards in garage lobbies, updated front-door entry systems and a resident phone directory.
“The committee provides the board with valuable, monthly information on fixes and improvements, and motivates people to be interested in running for the board, which was part of the reason the committee was formed,” Melzer says. “Time will tell if it works.”
The Columbia Association in Howard County, Md., one of the first planned communities in the country, was overrun with committees more than 10 years ago. Home to roughly 100,000 residents, the association had more than 20 committees, and each required at least one board member to participate. And board members already were attending two full board meetings a month.
“As you can imagine, this meant multiple meetings every week,” says Tom O’Connor, a board member for Village of Dorsey’s Search, one of nine single-family-home communities under the Columbia Association umbrella. “It plain and simple wore out board members. It eliminated association members in the workforce who wanted to run for board positions, which skewed the board toward mostly retired members. This affected the board’s decisions, which hampered the growth of the community.”
The Columbia solution: Create an ad-hoc committee that reviewed all governance issues—from elections to committee structures—and that eventually convinced the board to cut the number of committees to about seven.
“It has made life as a board member much better,” says O’Connor, a former chair of the Columbia Association board. “We’re still tweaking how the committees operate, but I feel this structure is here to stay.”
Committees can be lifesavers: They take on tasks that a full board lacks time to oversee; they provide expertise that’s critical to community operations; and they act as a liaison between residents and the board or staff.
On the other hand, sometimes committees run amok and become liabilities: They grow overly bureaucratic; they get bogged down in meetings and minutia that impede their goals; they succumb to one or two dominating members; or they flounder without a clear mission or enough volunteers.
Typically, larger communities with sizeable budgets have multiple committees. Some small associations don’t have any. The number and type of committees varies based on what and when tasks should be completed. The Crossings creates a committee when there’s a short- or long-term project or objective that would overwhelm the board, Melzer says.
Associations typically employ two types of committees. Program-oriented standing committees, such as finance, design review and landscaping, remain in operation indefinitely. Task-oriented, ad-hoc committees, such as elections, holiday party planning and playground construction, disband when their job is complete.
Boards should develop a charter for each of its committees that clearly articulates guidelines for structure, function, responsibility, limitations and term limits. Charters should be reviewed annually to ensure they remain in line with the board’s vision.
“If the board doesn’t know what outcomes they expect from the committee, you cannot expect the committee to be focused,” O’Connor says.
Everyone on the committee needs to understand the task, adds Melzer. “Providing milestones or deadlines and asking for updates is helpful.”
Most committees are advisory to the board. But some, typically design review, have decision-making authority; the charter should spell that out.
Committees in Vista del Verde of Santee Homeowners Association, a community of 43 townhomes in the San Diego area, only serve in an advisory capacity. “We try to communicate to homeowners that committees … do not make the final decisions,” says Nancy Hauser, a Vista del Verde board member.
However, it’s important to act on committee recommendations, when appropriate. Since finding people to serve on committees can be a challenge, acting on their recommendations helps promote success and interest.
“Recognize the committee members publically for their hard work and for the good they are doing for the association,” O’Connor says. “Remember: You will need these people again.”
Associations also should promote committee opportunities and recruit volunteers by talking to new residents, sending out invitations, making announcements at meetings and posting notices in common areas, newsletters and websites.
Victoria Cohen, a meeting recorder and parliamentarian in San Diego, believes a finance committee is the one committee associations can’t live without.
“Board members are often too busy and sometimes lack the expertise to fully understand financial statements, investment policies and reserve studies,” she says. “A knowledgeable person or persons should keep an eye on the financials and ask the board hard questions.”
Perhaps no less important is the design review committee that evaluates renovations, improvements, additions and other exterior changes and works with homeowners to uphold community design standards.
Hauser calls Vista del Verde’s landscape committee indispensable. It works with gardeners to oversee the installation of plants, trees and pruning; monitors irrigation; collects and reviews landscape bids; and is responsible for improvements, such as the new soaker irrigation system that is being installed to address the region’s ongoing drought.
Associations can rely on several other types of standing committees.
A maintenance committee can oversee common area repairs and upgrades, and ensure compliance with health and safety regulations, according to Hauser.
Andrea Walsh, CMCA, AMS, a community manager with Advanced Property Specialists in Tinley Park, Ill., says a clubhouse committee can be invaluable. The committee can be charged with renting the clubhouse and ensuring it is cleaned, vacuumed and nothing is broken after parties. A pool committee can be charged with similar tasks, in addition to working with lifeguards and maintenance.
Some ad-hoc committees convene to plan annual events, such as holiday parties or summer picnics. Others are created to achieve a finite project, such as installing a new playground.
Hauser’s community formed an ad-hoc committee to address the unfortunate reality that the river bed behind the homes attracted homeless people who wandered into the community. Vista del Verde also used a reconstruction committee to plan the installation of new roofs.
Charters and protocol aside, it’s critical that a board not keep committee members on such a tight leash that they feel micromanaged.
“Only one thing needs to be in place for committees to work,” Walsh says. “And that’s trust. If the board, for instance, questions every bid that the committee receives, your committee will walk away.”
She’s seen it firsthand. A few years ago, for lack of trust, a board president closed each committee’s petty cash accounts and got involved with every contractor the committees met. The committee members all resigned.
The problem went on for about four years and wasn’t resolved until the president moved out of the community. “Then the committees returned and everything got back to normal,” says Walsh.
O’Connor notes that all volunteer organizations should be built on trust. “It’s essential for all levels in the association. When trust breaks down … things go from bad to worse very quickly.”
There may be circumstances that require the board to step in. A board may need to intervene, for example, when one or two strong personalities dominate the committee or whose need for control impedes the committee’s mission.
Sometimes a committee tries to exert control beyond its stated mission.
“That’s when the board has to review and revise the committee charter and get it back in line,” says Cohen.
When a single committee member goes rogue, Cohen recommends the board talk to the person about the parameters of his or her authority.
Even though there are potential pitfalls and conflicts with committees, they offer associations intrinsic value. As long as they’re monitored and continue to serve their purpose, Cohen believes committees are a great way to help associations succeed. “The goal should always be to do what is in the best interest of the community,” she says.
Community associations can create committees for a number of projects and tasks. Here are some of the most common types of committees and what they may do:
Covenants. Helps the board regulate external design, appearance, use and maintenance of the common areas. Issues notices of violations, conducts hearings and listens to appeals. Reviews policies, procedures, rules and regulations periodically for need and enforceability.
Communications. Prepares the association newsletter, promotes community events, maintains a community directory and conducts orientation for new residents.
Maintenance. Preserves and enhances common areas, solicits information and bids from appropriate maintenance providers and monitors maintenance contracts for compliance.
Safety. Identifies safety hazards, develops programs to promote the safety and security of the community, inspects common areas and equipment, and recommends improvements.
Recreation/Social. Develops social programs, activities and events according to the needs and interests of the community.
Finance. Reviews the preliminary budget, conducts public hearings on the budget, reviews financial reports, reviews and monitors insurance needs and coverage, and monitors financial procedures and transactions.
Elections. Nominates candidates for board positions, and organizes, prepares for and conducts association elections.
by: Dana Wilkie is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.