The headline of a recent Walpole, Massachusetts newspaper article reads: “Fight between Walpole selectmen cuts meeting short.” The first sentence of the article stated, “Selectmen came to verbal blows on Tuesday night, prompting other board members to cut the meeting short as two of their colleagues took the altercation outside.”
It sounds like it could have been from an episode of a fictitious reality show entitled ‘Board Meetings Gone Wild,’ where viewers watch meetings that are out of control, overlong, unproductive or, as in this case, downright hostile. Even comedian Dave Barry said of meetings, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings.'”
The scary part is that this is reality. In some cases, board meetings turn into ‘verbal blows’ and, in some extreme cases, physical confrontations. Board meetings can get very heated. Different ideas, differences of opinion and different agendas can cause so much stress in a meeting where people want to give their opinions, solve problems, make decisions, vote and get back home to their families. As a result, board meetings should have a protocol or policy in place for when things get a little tense and tempers start to flare.
“I’ve seen board meetings where people yelled at each other, which is very inappropriate. And then they may bring cursing to the table. I’ve had meetings where people lunged across the table at each other, or almost came to fisticuffs,” says Cynthia Graffeo, senior property manager at Argo Management in Manhattan.
“In general,” she says, “it is the responsibility of the chairperson, be that the property manager or officer of the board, such as board president, to see that these situations are handled appropriately and that future meetings don’t contain those situations.” Surprisingly, she adds, it may take only a reminder “that we are all ladies and gentlemen” to calm a contentious debate and put the meeting back on track.
In his book, “The Perfect Board,” author Calvin Clemens writes, “The Perfect Board” is probably a goal that can never be reached. “Given the manner in which people work with one another, it is doubtful that consistent harmony can be achieved,” he writes. “But maybe that is the goal. Working together, moving the organization forward, instead of individual or selfish pursuits.”
Working together, of course, involves a degree of trust—among the board members themselves and between board members and the owners or shareholders they represent. “My view is that in terms of avoiding conflict, the answer is transparency—making everything known or open to be known,” says attorney David Byrne a partner with Herrick, Feinstein’s Community Association Group, with offices in New York and New Jersey.
“My experience is that transparency removes the conspiracy theory, where people come to the meeting and want to catch someone doing something wrong. You need to create a psychology where everybody believes that everybody’s trustworthy, and has nothing to hide.”
To that end, it’s best for everyone to know what is going to be discussed well before the meeting begins, and then to have accurate minutes available for future review.
Surprises are good for birthday parties, wedding and baby announcements and flash mobs. They aren’t good for board meetings. “The preparation for a successful meeting begins with the managing agent,” says Peter von Simson, the chief executive officer of New York City-based New Bedford Management Corp. “Two or three business days before the meeting, the agent should circulate a proposed agenda to all participants. At this point, topics can be added or removed as participants would like and time allows. The agenda for a monthly board meeting,” he explains, “should have an overview of the building financials as a cover page to the agenda. The financial overview should include all bank balances, cash flow with Actual vs. Budget, an arrears report as well as an open payables report.
“The agent and whomever else is responsible for a topic on the agenda should come prepared and ready to speak about their item and should bring handouts/proposals for everyone attending the meeting,” von Simson suggests.
“Have board meetings that open to tenants and owners,” Byrne concurs. “Have minutes prepared; they are not transcripts, but corporate records of decisions that were made, so that it’s not burdensome to make the minutes. Have the minutes available at the next meeting. Use websites, newsletters, things like that” to keep everyone informed of board activities. “Lay it out there and tell owners that for the most part, they are free to look at whatever they want.”
A well-ordered agenda helps eliminate any surprises that might crop up to blindside the board and owners, and also keeps the meeting from getting bogged down. “Especially when a building has gone through monster meetings, the addition to the agenda that I like to see is to put a suggested time frame per topic,” Graffeo says. “Board members have the opportunity to review that, to think about any questions they have, so when they come to the board meeting, they not only have the clear order of business to follow from the agenda, but also the suggested time frames to keep the board on track so the meeting ideally lasts an hour to an hour and half. Once a meeting spans one and a half hours, people get tired and cranky and it really becomes less and less effective.”
Given that many meetings are held after board members return from a long day at work, it’s easy to see how long meetings can become out-of-control meetings. “Once a meeting goes beyond two hours,” von Simson agrees, “the quality of the discussion and decisions drops dramatically.”
The type of meeting doesn’t matter; these guidelines apply everywhere, otherwise chaos can ensue. A few years ago in Birmingham, Alabama, a school board meeting ended up with police reports being filed when one board member punched another. And when a recent town meeting in Massachusetts dragged on toward midnight, one resident found a sure—albeit illegal—way to call a halt to the debate: He pulled the fire alarm, emptying the building and bringing the meeting to an abrupt end.
One way to guide a potentially Boards Gone Wild meeting back onto a productive path may be to consult Robert’s Rules of Order, a classic work of wisdom that has been helping keep parliamentary procedures on track for more than a century. The rules are simple: they spell out in explicit detail how to run a meeting, form the proper way of introducing a new item of business, vote on it, and close the floor for discussion. However, not every board uses the rules. “Robert’s Rules can be cumbersome if all of the board members already respect each other and follow protocol, and behave in a respectful manner even if they disagree. However, if they’re not, Robert’s Rules are an excellent way of ensuring that occurs.”
Graffeo offers a much simpler, and shorter, set of guidelines: “Be polite. Be civil. Don’t monopolize. Don’t yell. Don’t curse,” she says. “It sounds silly, but it’s amazing that you do have people who do that.”
An open door for board meetings does not mean that it’s “open mic” night in the meeting room. The right to attend a board meeting is not the same as a right to speak.
“Generally, in a co-op or condo, boards are elected to run the building in the best business fashion possible,” Graffeo says. “Business would not be able to be conducted properly and effectively if everyone just walked into a meeting and essentially interrupted the agenda. What we recommend is that if someone would like to meet with the board, they meet with the property manager and schedule a time so that they can be heard at that meeting. People can then bring their issue to the board, while at the same time not interrupting the board.
“I’ve had boards also have a certain time frame at the beginning of the meeting for any shareholders or unit owners to come with any comments they have. Then comments closed so only board members can conduct their meeting.”
Giving owners an opportunity to get things off their chests can help create that feeling of transparency that’s so essential within the community. “I do recommend allowing people to speak,” Byrne says. Having a time limit for comments will keep the meeting from dragging on, but even with limits, boards should be reasonable. “You don’t call police if a guy speaks for three minutes and you only allow two,” he says. “A lot of it is like kindergarten—you’ve just to go hope everybody gets along.”
“A portion of every meeting should be set aside to review written owner concerns and questions, and a timely response should be given to each owner—owner if the response is to simply say that the board is looking into the issue and given an expected final response time,” says von Simson. “Inviting an individual owner to a meeting can be very helpful to a board in being able to understand the position of an owner on a specific issue. These invitations let owners know that the board is open to hearing their side, even if the board’s decision is to ultimately deny their request. Unfortunately with the many topics on most building board agendas, carving out that time to speak with individual owners can be difficult for any board.”
In the book, Community Associations: A Guide to Successful Management, by Stephen R. Barber, CPM and Vickie Gaskill, CPM, the authors suggest several tips to make a board meeting more productive. One important one: “Enforce ground rules.” They write, “For example, use courtesy, let one person speak at a time, allow no interruptions and have no ridiculing of another person’s opinion. Members frequently show up for meetings simply because they have a passion for one particular issue. If the president has established some basic ground rules at the beginning of the meeting, he or she will have the support of the majority of participants when the time comes to intercede and close the discussion.”
Dave Barry made a joke about meetings, but the bottom line is that board meetings are no laughing matter and need to be organized, efficient and effective.
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator. Associate Editor Pat Gale also contributed to this article.
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