The Chain of Communication Establishing Connections – and Boundaries – Between Board and Residents

The board of a condominium, cooperative, or homeowners’ association literally exists to serve, and to represent residents’ best interests in the day-to-day business of the association. The relationship between owner/shareholder and board member is symbiotic; one doesn’t exist without the other. And as such, the former party can often feel entitled to board members’ time and attention. 

Sometimes this is perfectly appropriate – but occasionally, residents may overstep, aggressively encroaching on board members’ personal space and overstepping boundaries. Even if a resident has a legitimate grievance or issue to raise with their board, it’s important to remember that board members are almost always volunteers with demanding outside lives; they’re not full-time receptacles for association inquiries, and should not be confronted off the clock in the elevator, the parking lot, or the lobby. 

In order to maintain respect and courtesy between board and residents, it’s important for communities to establish an accessible chain of communication of which everyone is aware. This allows residents to express their complaints and queries clearly and non-confrontationally, and allows the board to address issues as they arise, in a fashion that does not involve anybody getting yelled at by the pool.

Utilize the Middleman

While the board members are, by definition, the on-site face of association management, most communities pay top dollar for a qualified outside management company to which they outsource most day-to-day tasks that don’t require a formal vote. So while it may be easier to knock on the door of Jane in 2B to dispute a maintenance charge, oftentimes a better result can be obtained by reaching out to management.

“The board spends a lot of its time doing unpaid work, and, when not acting in official board capacity, members do not like to be bothered in the hallway, or have folks come to their units and interrupt their personal spaces,” advises Bart Steele, Assistant Vice President of Premier Property Solutions in Boston. “We recommend that all communication comes through management first, which allows us to filter issues to the board as necessary. This is especially helpful due to the massive volume of email traffic – especially at larger buildings – and also allows us to document everything that transpires.”

When a board experiences a major turnover after an election, or an association takes on new management, it’s imperative that those in charge let residents know to whom they should now direct their concerns, and how. “When we begin managing a new client, or there is a significant change in board membership, we request that board members refer all homeowner issues to management,” says Richard M. Holtzman, President of Prairie Shores Property Management in Chicago. “We offer numerous options via which homeowners can reach us regarding maintenance or accounting requests. I tell my boards that when they receive a request from a homeowner, they should simply tell them to ‘Call Rick.’”

The more adept and open the management company, the less burden will be shouldered by the board. “Most of the time, if an issue can be resolved by management without involving the board, we will go ahead and take care of it ourselves, and simply communicate unto the board the end result,” notes Claudine Gruen, Vice President and Director of Operations with Garthchester Realty in Forest Hills, New York. “The only time the board truly needs to be brought in is if a decision must be made regarding policy, finances, or a certain project needs to be executed. If a board vote is required, then we’ll put that issue on the agenda for the next board meeting. But nine times out of ten, we’ll simply address an issue as it comes and inform the board as to the result.”

And, while management cannot be expected to heed every resident’s beck and call at all times of the day, someone on the management team should always be accessible in case of a true emergency. Significant lengths of time between a resident making an inquiry and a board or manager responding to that initial inquiry can cause friction before the main matter of the inquiry is ever even addressed. That resident may feel that their request has not been received or worse yet, ignored. Before long, he or she may start sharing their frustrations with neighbors and friends, leading to an unintentional, and perhaps, undeserved reputation for the board and manager. 

Sometimes the delay is due to the type of question involved. “If the policy has already been decided by the board, then there should be no question that it should be answered as soon as possible,” says Lewis Waxman, Owner of Astro Property Management in Ft. Lauderdale, “If the issue is a policy decision, then it’s not up to the management.” Sometimes management won’t reply to an inquiry “if the board specifically instructs management not to,” says Waxman. It could be that they know about the issue already, like a broken intercom, and are planning to do an overhaul of the system, or they might not be able to say anything due to legal matters. 

“The management company should have a 24/7/365 contact system for community members in the event of emergencies,” adds Scott Dalley, executive vice president and chief operating officer with Access Property Management in Flemington, New Jersey. “There are certainly times when direct communication between the board and community members is fine, and it happens all the time, but it is important to remember that board members are just like non-board members: they want to enjoy their homes and communities and not be afraid to take their dog out for a walk due to fear of being approached by half of their neighborhood seeking advice and answers. The community manager should be the first point of contact for the resident, as they are usually on top of the community’s issues, and armed with the resources to deal with them.”

Chain of Command

“I recommend that everyone puts their complaints in writing, with the understanding that only those issues submitted that way will be brought to the board’s attention during the subsequent board meeting,” explains Gruen. “I then incorporate the written submissions into my agenda, discuss them during the meeting, then get back to the shareholder with the board’s decision based on their email or complaint.”

It’s possible to give residents both a place to air their grievances and stay informed of community affairs all in one place. “We recommend providing easily accessible information on the community – requisite forms, policies, updates, etc. – via a well-maintained website,” says Dalley. “And then use other forms of communication, like text messages, email blasts and calls to keep everyone up-to-date with more urgent details.”

As should surprise very few, email is the preferred means of contact for many property managers, as it’s often the best way to maintain functional workflow. “This is how we recommend that residents contact management,” says Richard Blenden, Owner of The Blenden Group in Millburn, New Jersey. “This usually forces the unit owner to clearly explain their problem, while providing the manager the ability to make a site visit to examine the issue, and/or meet directly with the owner. Likewise, it gives the manager the ability to seek clarification as needed. The board member can then avoid being forced into making an on-the-spot decision, which might prove incorrect or inappropriate. When board members feel the need to respond ‘at gunpoint,’ it can cause additional problems. Depending on the issue, and whenever possible, having a complaint and response in writing helps to avoid misunderstandings.”

Professionally Patient

Of course, even the most well-regulated association will still produce the occasional owner who has issues following protocol, sometimes to the extent that it makes the board uncomfortable. Here too, management can be an asset, swooping in to mitigate a problem before it escalates. 

“We recently had an issue wherein residents were bothering the board about unit air conditioning issues, knocking on their doors at night, calling the building superintendent on his personal cell phone...” laments Steele. “We circulated a memo to all residents informing them of the proper protocol and chain-of-command going forward.

“And then three months ago, the only elevator at a different building stopped working on a Friday night,” Steele continues. “The elevator was nearly 90 years old, so a part that was needed for repair had to be custom-made, and thus the elevator had to be shut down for the weekend. Cut to the board being harassed throughout, in hallways, stairwells, even at their units, by residents who were personally angry at them, as if the breakdown was the board’s fault, saying basically ‘I pay my condo fees, and it’s your job to make sure that the elevator works; there are elderly residents who you’re ignoring, etcetera.’ People were posting nasty messages in the halls, on the elevator doors, and on board member’s doors. So management had to again send a memo explaining that all complaints should go through management, and should they be unable to reach us, they should call our emergency line. We reminded them that they should NEVER be bothering the board at their units about building issues. The board puts in a lot of unpaid time in order to increase the value of everyone’s investment, and for that they deserve thanks, not criticism.”

“Occasionally you’ll deal with an angry individual who may not even understand the issue about which they’re up-in-arms,” adds Gruen. “They just have to vent to somebody. And you ask them to cite a specific example that illustrates their problem, and they often can’t – in which case we can’t help them. Then there are those who, regardless of what you respond to their issue, they have a subsequent issue. This goes on and on and on, and sometimes you just have to get on to the next thing, or get the attorney involved if necessary. Some people just always need to have a problem.”

Of course, “take it up with management” is not an operating plan in and of itself, and, left at that, it can foster resentment among residents who feel that they’re getting the brush-off. Establishing a specific process via which residents can file their comments, complaints, and requests that yields demonstrable results is the best way to show everyone involved that the system is working as intended. “Miscommunication is an issue, on almost anything,” concludes Waxman. “Many times rumors run off of hearsay and word of mouth and that can create all kinds of problems, but the management company works for the board of directors so it has to operate in the guidelines that have been established by the board.”         

Mike Odenthal is a staff writer/reporter with The South Florida Cooperator. 

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