When it comes to the subject of meetings—specifically monthly board meetings or annual unit owner meetings in condos, co-ops, and HOAs—there seem to be no neutral opinions. A few folks actually like these exchanges, but most dread them.
Some residents and board members report attending poorly conducted and ineffective meetings that wasted both time and energy, and resolved nothing. Others reported attending meetings where tempers flared, voices were raised, and hard feelings wiped out any possible efficiency or progress. At best, most board members and residents alike seem to regard the board/unit owner meeting as a necessary evil.
Evil or not, board and unit owner meetings are necessary. Co-ops and condominiums are governed by laws, and should be run as a business. Despite the technical advantages of online meetings, emails, text messages, and smart phones, the multiple layers involved with HOA management require regular meetings with formal minutes used to record attendance, votes, and finances. They're like the memory bank of the community—crucially important, even when you can't necessarily see them working.
So, what can boards, unit owners, committees and property managers do to improve both the quality and productiveness of these regularly scheduled and necessary meetings? Where should board officers look for suggestions and education to improve the quality and outcome of board meetings? Here are a few ideas from some industry pros.
Robert’s Rules of Order and Beyond
Robert's Rulesof Order was first published in February 1876 by Brigadier General Henry Martyn Robert, and contained guidelines intended for use by any 'deliberative assembly.' The book listed rules loosely modeled after those used at the time in the U.S. House of Representatives. Today, property managers and boards tend to use the protocols therein in varying degrees depending on the property.
Robert's Rules tend be particularly useful for larger boards—those with 11-13 members, say—where strong leadership is needed to keep everyone on task and moving things forward. While Robert’s Rules offer many structural and procedural suggestions, boards should take advantage of classes and seminars available all year long from a variety of sources. Publications like The South Florida Cooperatorcan be very helpful, but for more help the Florida chapters of the Community Associations Institute provide conferences and workshops specifically on the topic of running meetings. If a board is self-managed, it may also be useful to have an attorney or property manager present to help run a few meetings, so board members have a real-life example of how a meeting with tight rules can be administered.
Down to the Minutes
Another key component of a well-run meeting is proper minute-taking. Minutes are a meeting’s official business records, and are admissible in court. They should reflect any corporate actions taken, and whether the board acted correctly on any given decision. Given the legal ramifications, it is extremely important to elect a competent board secretary who can plan to attend most (if not all) meetings. “The property manager should have the minutes typed up from the prior meeting, and they should be reviewed, because there's going to be a motion of whether to accept the minutes from the prior meeting,” says Geoffrey C. Curreri, an attorney and managing partner at Ferrer Law Group in Weston.
The minutes serve as a reminder of both finished and unfinished business and projects; what follow up is needed, who is responsible for that follow up, and what if any actions were finalized. The minutes also serve as a meeting history for new board members, residents, and property management firms, and finally the minutes offer a roadmap for the future, and help set the agenda for the next meeting.
That said, taking the minutes during a meeting does not mean slowing the proceedings to a crawl in an attempt to get every word uttered down on paper. The minutes should state who motioned for a vote, who seconded that motion, and whether the vote passed or failed. Anyone abstaining from voting should also be included in the records, but any information that may be considered privileged should not be discussed in an open meeting—or reflected in the minutes of the association.
Common Problems, Creative Solutions
Every board is different, but professionals tend to see patterns of behavior over the years, and a few recurring themes when meetings are problematic or generally not productive. Issues of personality can affect boards just like any other business environment, but that's an issue any board can experience, big or small. “The larger the board, the more personalities you have, the more conflicts there might be, but the more people you have to show up to be positive can get something done. If you have just three board members who disagree, that can make things very difficult,” says Curreri.
Experienced condo attorneys and managers like to use the minutes to help prepare the agenda for the next upcoming meeting. If there are projects requiring bids, a good practice is to prepare a spreadsheet with vendor information, and circulate it with enough time for board members to review it. By the time board members are assembled for the meeting, they are well informed and have limited questions. A short review usually results in a decisive vote. This system helps keep a board meeting running smoothly and on track. An efficient meeting usually falls around an hour, leaving time for twenty to thirty minutes of socialization after the business is finished.
Andy Ashwal, the executive director of KW Property Management & Consulting, which is headquartered in Miami but also has offices throughout Florida and in New York City, says the agenda is key to keeping a meeting on track and constructive.
Ashwal thinks an hour is a “healthy” block of time for a board meeting—and anything much over 90 minutes is excessive. The number one problem he sees with board meetings is not sticking to the agenda. The reasons vary, but a tendency to socialize at the beginning of the meeting—rather than at the end—is a common occurrence. “Board members are volunteers, with their neighbors, for their neighbors, and spending time catching up is often the cause for a delayed start,” he says.
Ashwal sends a detailed agenda package out to the board prior to the meeting. “We attach related documents so they can catch up on the topics and let us know if they would like anything else included. The meetings run more efficiently when the board lets the property manager know if they want to discuss a new topic or one not included. We put a time frame on the agenda and set aside 5-10 minutes for new business.” If the meeting gets off track, Ashwal refers back to the time frame, but acknowledges “it doesn’t always work.”
Alan Pearlstein, a general manager at FirstService Residential, a nationwide management firm, which has offices all over South Florida, echoes Ashwal in that personal discussions and socialization need to be redirected to the end of the meeting. “There is always at least one member who treats the board meeting as a social, and this is compounded if the meeting is in a board member’s home,” says Pearlstein.
Like the other professionals, Pearlstein notes that not keeping to the agenda and spending too much time on the minutes are common distractions, and adds that an overloaded agenda can also bog down a meeting. “If there are too many items on the agenda, schedule another meeting” he says.
Pearlstein says he sometimes breaks meetings into segments with a board-only meeting preceding an open meeting for the residents. He also recommends sending out a board packet at least a week in advance of a meeting to include: the agenda, minutes, financials, management reports and any proposals. “Each proposal should have a spread sheet analysis summary for comparison with at least two other proposals so the board can make quick educated decisions.”
When meetings get off track Pearlstein’s standard approach is a “hard stop time.” He introduces that time at the beginning of the meeting and refers back to it, “I have a hard stop at 8:00 p.m. so let’s get back to ____X_______, and you can discuss this off line later.” Another approach he uses for hot topics is to table the discussion until later in the meeting or for a future meeting. “It is important to get to the issues that must be addressed at the meeting, other confrontational items can possibly be discussed off line or at a future meeting.”
At monthly meetings in which unit owners are invited to attend, Curreri says it's important to keep statements to an allotted time, so the length of the meeting doesn't get out of hand. “Each homeowner is supposed to be given three minutes to voice whatever concerns they may have. A lot of the times, it doesn't happen. Many run over the three minutes, and the meeting tends to get long, and they can be there for hours and hours and hours,” he says. It can be difficult to shorten peoples' statements for fear of coming off as rude, but if everyone is left to wax poetic for as long as they want, it will feel like the meeting will never end. “It's important to keep it orderly, keep it to three minutes, make sure people go one at a time, that will help things run a lot more efficiently,” says Curreri.
Open forums on the agenda provide structure for community members to speak. “Statute requires that unit owners be allowed to speak on agenda items for up to three minutes. Every association is different, some associations find it very important and useful to allow their members to speak, and some have no limits on how long they can speak because it's not abused,” says Helen Kelley, LCAM, CMCA, AMS, founding and managing partner of Creative Management located in New Port Richey. “Others have found it necessary to put in place actual guidelines and policies on how and when homeowners can speak in meetings, because it can be abused to the point where it's almost impossible for the board to conduct their business, because homeowners want to monopolize the meeting,” she says.
Certainly topics open for discussion should be on the agenda, rather than be random, and must be focused on the issues at hand. “If you're allowing membership to speak, you can use Robert’s Rules—like maybe give a minute per person and have a timer, and when that timer stops, that marks the end of the discussion,” according to Jennifer Ward, data services manager at Condominium Associates in Clearwater.
“Moreover, it's not a chance for unit owners to start a griping session—boards shouldn't really allow owners to complain about other owners, board members, or higher assessments. Instead, contentious issues like that should be reserved for a different process. Managers say that the issues that work well are things an owner notices on the property that the board or management may have missed. These could include suggesting new rules that will correct some perceived issues that they have. Instead of personal agendas, it would focus on insight on the management of the property.
There are some basic differences between board meetings and meetings open to unit owners. “Board and committee meetings are free-flowing discussions. We want the board members to interact and discuss the topics on the agenda,” says Ashwal. “Meetings are primarily held to update the residents, and give the residents an opportunity to ask questions.”
Pearlstein explains the basic format is the same, but special care is needed to be sure the bylaw rules are followed for annual elections, and proof of mailing for the meeting. “It is important to make sure unit owners are kept in the loop so they feel they are a part of running the building,” says Pearlstein.
The experts recommend a strict format for unit owners meetings from roll call, through minutes, reports, ballots and the election of a new board, also making sure there is time for discussion and questions.
If your meetings are not effectively moving along the business of your building or association, these experts have formulas worth implementing. Their suggestions and proven techniques are sure to take the “bored” and the dread out of monthly board meetings.
Anne Childers is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The South Florida Cooperator. Staff writer Tom Lisi contributed to this article.