Keeping the Lines Open The Importance of Good Communication

No one likes to feel left out or ignored. Sometimes that is how co-op and condo residents may feel if they believe their board or managers are not responding to their requests for information or sharing enough up front. What they may not realize, however, is that there can be important reasons for discretion on the part of board members and managers. Keeping the lines of communication open and clear can help eliminate those misunderstandings and help establish a healthy level of trust between everyone involved. 

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. The resident may feel that his request has not been received, or worse yet, has been ignored as insignificant. Before long, that individual can start sharing his frustrations with neighbors and friends, leading to an unintentional and perhaps undeserved reputation for board and manager of unresponsiveness. 

Sometimes the delay is simply a reflection of the type of question involved. “It could be that the question is technical in nature or requires board discussion,” says Martin Kera, president of Bren Management Corp., and an attorney with the law firm of Kera & Graubard, both in Manhattan. “Then they have to get the board together for that discussion.” 

Still, no matter how much time may be needed to properly answer the question in full, it is important to issue some sort of response as soon as possible. “We like to get back to everyone immediately,” Kera says. “We don’t want them to think that they’re being ignored.”

Bram Fierstein, president and co-founder of Gramatan Management, Inc. in New Rochelle, 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 usually can 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. 

“Some boards are advised by their lawyers not to disclose anything,” says Kera. “And some things shouldn’t be disclosed like problems with the super. That’s the purpose of the board—to handle things. Even problems in the building—you don’t necessarily want to create a panic” by disclosing things too soon. “Not until you’ve made a decision on what should be done.” 

Attorney Marc Schneider, a managing partner at the law firm of Schneider Mitola LLP, with offices in Garden City and Manhattan, says, “Communication is always good.” But he agrees that not every question can be answered. As with any large business or entity, there can be legal restrictions in how much boards and managers ultimately can share with residents and shareholders. “You have to find the proper mix of what information you are going to accommodate,” he says. “It should be done with care. If not, it could compromise the interests of the corporation or condo.”

Schneider cites a fictitious example involving problems with a superintendent, who the board may be looking at for termination of employment. “It is not in the best interest of the building to air these things out,” he says. Should the super in question end up being let go, however, the issue should be addressed immediately. “It’s important to quickly communicate this information because the super may have had relationships with people in the building.” 

Once an executive decision is made that may affect the daily lives of residents, managing those relationships and communicating as openly as possible under the law can go a long way in mitigating negative responses.

What They Can and Cannot Say

The types and amount of information that boards can share with individual residents are laid out in governing documents and state laws. “Some co-ops are in a misunderstanding that shareholders are entitled to see the minutes of board meetings, but really, it’s just for shareholder meetings,” Schneider says. The distinction can be an important one. “There is a lot of personal information in board meeting minutes that should not be disclosed. It is not the shareholder’s business that Mrs. Jones may be six months in arrears.” That does not mean shareholders should be kept in the dark—they get the financials at the end of every year, says Schneider, so they know what the financial status of the co-op is without seeing the details of their neighbors’ individual situations.

For condominium residents, the Condo Act dictates that the manager or board will keep detailed records in chronological order and that items such as receipts and expenditures will be made available for examination of their details. 

In short, condo unit owners are entitled to access to more records than co-op shareholders. For example, shareholders are not entitled to see actual contracts for, say, on elevator maintenance. What boards can and cannot provide to their shareholders is laid out in the state’s Business Corporation Law (BCL Section 624). Individuals making requests to see certain items also may be required to sign an affidavit ensuring that they will not sell lists of fellow shareholder’s names, for example. 

If, though, litigation is brought against a co-op or condo, the game can change quickly. “If someone brings a lawsuit against the board, the court can compel them to produce board minutes” or other information pertaining to the case, says Schneider.

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 shareholder requests it, the fact remains that open and strong communication can go a long way in ensuring a happy, well-adjusted building. Thanks new technologies, there are more ways than ever to share news and updates that affect the co-op or condo building 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.” 

“In my smaller buildings,” says Kera, “we use email exclusively and even letters sometimes. In bigger buildings, we use newsletters to give reports and news on what’s going on.”

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 unit owners and shareholders. This is especially true in establishing the correct protocols for communication. “It is important to tell residents that their concerns must be put in writing,” says Fierstein. “Then the manager can easily forward emails or letters to the board for their evaluation.” 

And if residents find that their building’s 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. “There are legal and non-legal ramifications,” says Schneider. For example, “If a shareholder asks for certain documents which they are entitled to and don’t receive them, they can file suit.” 

Kera adds that “there could be legal ramifications for not communicating information that could affect residents like a contaminant or mold in a unit on the top floor or the removal of asbestos from the roof. But again, there’s the issue of panic. There’s really no one answer. There are a number of considerations to be made.”

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. “When you hear most residents complain, it’s because of a lack of communication,” says Schneider. “If you give them enough information, they feel aware. If you give them no information and are making major decisions, they’ll wait until next year’s election and run a completely new board or petition to remove the board.” 

Kera agrees. “The main ramification is disgruntled people, insurrection, and not a happy building.” 

There are provisions contained within the bylaws that give shareholders and unit owners the right to petition for the removal of individual board members of the entire board. In many co-ops, the shareholders do not need cause. In condos, their bylaws may require cause to be demonstrated. And if those meetings to hear the petition and vote are not held, the residents or shareholders can compel them legally, says Schneider. 

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.

Elizabeth Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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