No one likes to feel left out or ignored. That is how condo residents may feel if they believe their board or managers are not responding to their requests or sharing enough information. What they may not realize, however, is that there can be important reasons for silence on the part of board members and managers. Keeping an open line of communication can help eliminate misunderstandings and help establish a healthy level of trust.
When Questions Come
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, they 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.”
Bram Fierstein, president and co-founder of a New York-based management firm, agrees. “Questions should be responded to as quickly as possible. It is best to acknowledge a question via email or telephone to inform the resident that the matter is being considered and you will get back to them with an answer.”
This immediate response can prevent some potential frustrations before they start. “Answers to questions sometimes require board input or legal input,” says Fierstein. “This can cause a delay. In today’s world, residents often expect ‘immediate gratification.’ This is not always possible but acknowledging their inquiry and informing them that they will get a response is extremely important.”
Inquiries can usually be broken down into two categories: emergencies and non-emergencies, each with their own frame of proper response time. “Emergencies should be responded to immediately,” says Fierstein. “Non-emergencies should receive an acknowledgment within 24 hours.”
Once a request for information has been acknowledged, the next step is putting together a response. Sometimes the request is a simple one and can be handled on the spot or just with a phone call. In other instances, if the resident’s request is more unusual or requires the input of other experts, it may take more time and consideration to formulate the correct response.
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.
What They Can and Cannot Say
Not every question can be answered and some things under Florida law are not required to be disclosed to unit owners. Under Florida Statutes 718, prohibited records include: email addresses, telephone numbers and emergency contact information; any addresses of a condominium-unit owner other than as provided to fulfill the condominium association’s notice requirements; personnel records of condominium association employees; any electronic security measure that is used by the condominium association to safeguard data; and, the software and operating system used by the condominium association.
“First and foremost, boards and managers should contact their legal counsel if they have any questions regarding whether the law prohibits the disclosure of certain information, or whether a desired action by the association would violate the privacy rights of an individual,” says Attorney Michael S. Bender, one of the founding members of the law firm of Kaye Bender Rembaum, with offices in Pompano Beach and Palm Beach Gardens.
Bender states that the following must be kept confidential by boards and managers: any information obtained by the association in connection with the sale or lease of a property, such as background investigations, any medical records of an owner, the social security number/driver’s license number/credit card number of an owner, personnel records of the employees of the association, except for the written employment agreement/financial records that show the compensation paid to an association employee, electronic security measures that are used by the association to safeguard data (i.e., passwords), and any attorney-client privileged information.
Keeping the Channels Open
Despite some of the limitations that may exist in what types of information can be shared when a unit owner or requests it, the fact remains that open and strong communication can go a long way in ensuring a happy, well-adjusted building community or HOA. With the booming growth of technology, there are more ways than ever to share news and updates that affect the community as a whole.
“Depending on the circumstances, there are different ways to communicate,” says Fierstein. “If it is an emergency situation like the boiler or an elevator being out of service, we sometimes use blast emails or robo calls. Posting notices is important as well. We also suggest to boards that they set up a building email address that residents can use to communicate with boards and management simultaneously.”
Waxman says, “Management companies use e-mail and regular mail, normally they want a paper trail so they would prefer e-mail rather than a phone call. If it’s something that can be taken care of with a phone call then they’d do that.” He adds that if the management company does use phone calls, they “might log calls in.”
Management plays an integral role in ensuring the steady flow of information to residents as well as making sure that boards maintain open channels of communication with their unit owners.
And if residents find that their association manager is not fulfilling his or her duties in terms of answering questions or sharing information, then they should not be afraid to speak up. “Contact the owner of the management company immediately,” says Fierstein. “Do not let this simmer.”
The Price of Silence
Should there be a long-term or particularly severe failure to communicate, the ramifications for board members can loom large. The other outcome of not communicating well is not much better than the litigation and can result in the loss of positions on a board. Residents complain often because of a lack of information. And a lack of information breeds suspicion that something is awry.
“Miscommunication is an issue, on almost anything. 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,” says Waxman.
If the board is dysfunctional and not doing its job, Florida statute provides specifically for the recall or removal of board members. Section 718.112(2)(j), Florida Statutes, provides for the rules and procedures that an association must follow to recall one of its board members, namely through a majority of the entire voting interests, according to Attorney Joseph Adams, a managing shareholder with the law firm of Becker & Poliakoff in Fort Myers/Naples. That section is contained within the required provisions of Florida’s Condominium Act, meaning that these rules and procedures for recall are deemed included within each association’s bylaws. A special meeting held for purposes of a recall must be properly noticed, Adams notes, and new laws passed in 2013 allow the recalled board member to contest his or her removal in an arbitration proceeding. For more information on the recall procedures, go to the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation website at www.myfloridalicense.com.
As with any relationship, the one that exists between residents, board members and managers can be strengthened immeasurably with open, regularly maintained lines of communication. Without them, anxiety and suspicion can fester and grow, leading to headaches and even legal action among all involved. Talk in these instances is certainly not cheap—quite the contrary, it can be priceless in building a strong, happy community.
W.B. King is a frequent contributor to the South Florida Cooperator. Staff Writer John Zurz contributed to this article.