Is there anybody in this world who likes sitting through meetings? Too often they seem pointless, endless and directionless. But they’re part of co-op and condo life, an important part in fact, so if you’re a board member or property manager, it’s best to accept them and make them as useful and worthwhile as possible.
In general, boards meet once a month to discuss issues like maintenance, building improvements, expenditures, and unit-owner or shareholder concerns. If a meeting is run well, this can all be completed usually within one-and-a-half and three hours. It takes some effort, but by being prepared, working together and sticking to the agenda, meetings can be kept relatively painless.
How well a meeting is run is based, in large part, on the board members themselves. The first key is to be prepared.
Before any meeting, a board member is going to have some paperwork to read through: The agenda, proposals for bids, letters from shareholders, anything that is going to need the board’s approval. In today’s world of e-mails, fax machines and cell phones, communication is easier than ever. So it’s easier to get paperwork to a board members, and for board members to communicate any concerns they have with the management company prior to the meeting.
“Along with the agenda, I make sure everyone has a copy of the minutes from the last meeting,” says Andrew Hoffman of Clarendon Management in Manhattan. “I make sure they have any documentation of things we’re going to be discussing beforehand so that they can thoroughly review any documentation, bids, a letter from a shareholder, things that need approval. Anything that needs to be discussed that is a piece a paper, you don’t hand it out at the meeting for the first time—you give it to the board at least 24 hours before.”
Then, those materials have to actually be read.
“You also have to make sure that your board is educated and that they read [all the materials],” says Hoffman. “Being a board member is not just spending three hours a month on the building’s business—that creates a problem. You go to some buildings, and the people do absolutely nothing other than come to a meeting for a two hours.”
Another troublesome—if common—pet peeve of managers is the board member who constantly asks for information that is readily available in the paperwork he or she was provided with prior to the meeting.
“That’s extremely frustrating as a manager,” Hoffman says, “and I’m sure it’s frustrating for the board president. Part of being on the board is doing your homework.”
Very often, meetings can get bogged down because a board member brings up an issue that is important to him or her that isn’t on the agenda, and might not even be of interest to other members or the community at large. Keeping personal agendas separate from the overall board agenda is crucial to keeping the meeting on-track.
“The first thing is to have an accurate agenda,” says Joseph Bulfamante of Lawrence Properties, a Manhattan-based management company. “Not sticking to it, if you will, or going off on tangents on things that aren’t on the agenda can make things difficult.”
The agenda is a vital component of a successful meeting. According to Sam Irlander, president of Parker Madison Partners, Inc, items that appear on agendas include approving minutes, a manager’s report (meaning anything relating to the operation of the property or financial information the board is being informed of), a treasurer’s report, old business, new business and establishing a date for the next meeting.
How much time to spend on a given item can vary. Maintenance and operation issues that come up regularly most likely won’t be very time-consuming, but a major project will understandably take up more time.
Irlander prefers scheduling bigger, more important issues for earlier in the meeting when board members are best prepared to consider complicated items.
“I’m from the school of thought where I want the difficult issues to be dealt with at the beginning,” says Irlander, “because that way, you’re catching everybody fresh rather than as the night goes on. After a full day of work, no one wants to get caught up in difficult decisions. I would advise boards to talk about the important things first and the less important things later, because those are easier to carry over to the next month if they need to be discussed further. You can’t do that with big items that sometimes need a [more immediate] decision.”
It’s easy for meetings to get off the beaten path; some topics may be discussed longer than necessary, or unscheduled issues can end up eating time.
Although it’s the board’s meeting, and it’s run by board members themselves, it’s very often incumbent on the manager to steer things in the right direction if the meeting starts to stray.
“You want to keep it on track as to what the appropriate subject matter is,” says Irlander.
This can be one of the more delicate tasks a property manager has to handle. If a meeting is becoming unproductive, the manager needs to be assertive enough to step in and move the meeting forward. However, managers must avoid creating a perception that they’re trying to control the business at hand.
“My opinion [on the board’s business] doesn’t matter,” Irlander says, “but by having a strong personality, one can say, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t get caught up in this,’ instead of being timid and letting things go on too long.”
“My position as a manger is that I have to walk the line between allowing the board to interact with each other, and steering the conversation in an appropriate fashion for the board to make a decision,” Hoffman agrees. “It’s a fine line that a manger has to walk. It’s not my place to impose my ideals on the conversation, but it may be my place to steer the conversation to a place where the building is going to make a decision.”
Opinions vary, but in general a meeting should last between 90 minutes and three hours. The length of a particular meeting is in large part dependent on the issues being discussed. If a particularly costly project is on the agenda you can be pretty sure a lot of opinions are going to be shared, resulting in a longer meeting.
“If for instance, there are base building capital projects that have to be discussed, those meetings will tend to run a little bit longer,” Bulfamante says. “A review of proposals, or bids for jobs …there’s a tendency for those to a run a little longer.”
“If you’re talking about doing a façade restoration, you may talk about that a lot more than trash removal or water charges,” Irlander says. “The reason is you’re talking about something that could cost half-a-million or a million dollars in a larger building. That’s a serious capital improvement. As a result, you may want to take your time discussing procedure, how it should be handled, and who should be awarded the responsibility of gathering the information so that the board can make decisions in regards to contractors or engineers.”
But even meetings where those bigger issues are being discussed can be kept to a reasonable length, Bulfamante says, by having a committee that would preview those issues and make recommendations to the board. This requires more communication between the committee members and the property managers, but can result in more streamlined meetings.
The year-round work of the property manager can also ultimately have an impact on meetings. If the property manager knows the building and communicates with the board, many in-meeting votes can be taken up quickly.
“In a building where property management is done appropriately, the manager has anticipated certain things in advance of them coming up,” Irlander says. “Preventative things are known because if you’re doing appropriate operations on the property, you know what’s wrong with the property. You know if it needs façade work, or if it’s tired-looking in common areas and it’s going to need a sprucing. These are things you know are going to be coming up.”
The dangers in meetings going long, according to Hoffman, is that they become less productive as they become longer. Also, if a meeting starts to drag, items near the bottom of the agenda might not receive the amount of time they deserve or require. And it’s only human nature to start getting tired or frustrated during long meetings. After all, this is volunteer work for board the vast majority of board members—not their full-time jobs.
“Typically you’re meeting after work, so if the meeting starts at seven o’clock at night, you can’t still be conducting important business at 9:30 or 10 o’clock at night—people can’t handle that,” Hoffman says.
The size of the building may have some impact on the length of the meeting, but not much. Bigger buildings may have some expenses smaller ones don’t, but usually the differences aren’t big enough to turn what should be a 90-minute meeting into a three-hour marathon.
“You need the same organization and the same framework—it doesn’t matter if it’s a big or small building,” Hoffman says. “You still have to understand that this is a business. I have some buildings where during a two-hour meeting, people will spend 45 minutes kibitzing. It should be run as a business meeting.”