By Bob Gourley
It Begins with Discontent
Citizens of Egypt have toppled their government. Protests throughout the Middle East threaten to bring a new form of government to many countries. The Tea Party movement has gained great traction in America. Thousands protest at the state capitol in Wisconsin. It seems everywhere you look there is an air of discontent in how people are being governed. Can condominium and community associations be far behind?
I’ve seen discontent spread to community associations across the nation. It is showing itself in complaints to state’s Attorney Generals, State Representatives and Senators, and even local politicians. With as many as 1 in 6 residents living in condominiums or other community associations, it is no wonder that these leaders heed their call. One needs only to turn on the evening news to see the outcome of not listening to the disenfranchised.
A Call for Democracy
The cornerstone of democracy is allowing citizens a right to be heard and to have a say in how they are governed. I think it is fair to say that in most communities, there is a democratic process in place that allows for free exchange of thoughts and ideas between residents, the elected Board of Directors that govern them, and, where applicable, the Property Management firm that oversees the business needs of the Association and tends to the day-to-day business of the community. Community leaders are elected based on a popular vote of the citizens and are subject to recall by the citizens if they are deemed to be doing a poor job. Simply put, most of the common interest communities in America are run this way and function perfectly well.
But what about those associations that aren’t functioning well? How will they restore democracy to their communities? There is no shortage of proposed legislation. Depending on which state you live in, there is an abundance of laws that provide plenty of consumer protection for community association residents. An informed association resident has a wealth of tools at his or her disposal with which to protect the democratic process. An informed member of a Board of Directors has also been given a blueprint for success by applying proper methodology into the decision-making process.
Education and Communication are Part of the Problem
From what I have gathered in listening to complaints filed against Property Management firms and Board of Directors, there is an underlying problem of education and communication. I have not personally witnessed specific malice practiced by powers that be over members of their association. What I have seen is well-intentioned volunteers making uneducated decisions that have come back to haunt them. I have seen Board of Directors take steps they consider to be in the best interest of their community members but they have failed to fully communicate the process that went into their decision making. I have seen association members make accusations against their Board of Directors and Property Managers because they haven’t agreed with a decision that was made on their behalf. They perceive a denial of their democratic rights.
Education and Communication are Part of the Solution
As a community association communication expert, I cannot stress to my fellow members of Boards of Directors how important your communication efforts are. It is not enough to do the right thing for your association. You have to assume that residents don’t know what you are doing unless you tell them. You have to assume that they will be suspicious of what you are doing if you operate in a vacuum. Most state regulations require a certain transparency to how you operate. I encourage you to embrace the spirit of these laws and allow them to make your job of governing easier with regards to communicating with your fellow residents. Use your newsletter and community website to tell the story. Tell it well and tell it often.
In these times of turmoil, I am asking everyone to take a step back, take a deep breath, and look at the likely outcome of quick decisions and short-term fixes. I am asking everyone to think about the positive outcome of “building community” within your community. There may never be a utopian state where everyone agrees with every decision that a community needs to make to thrive. Surely, we can all agree that the process by which those decisions are made is a one which embraces democracy and invites a community to become stronger because of the process. Long live the democracy!