There’s no trick to ending disputes once and for all, but the good news is that you can build a community association’s culture on the foundations of collaboration and respect.
If you manage or are on the board of directors of a community association, then you are aware of the power struggles and squabbling that typify the relationships between many boards and their members. It’s not all bad — your members get benefits from their membership, and many report having a positive relationship with their community association. For all the reports hitting the newswire outlining outrageous allegations of community association corruption and injustice, there are many of you on the management- and board-side who administer your community association fairly. And the jokes about the overreaching and dramatic conduct of community association board members are rarely, if ever, true.
Of course, even if you run a tight ship, you may be in the thick of a battle over procedures, interpretation of governing documents, or be cursed with the burden of brokering peace between warring factions that even involve your own board members. And, even if you are in the envious position to brag that all is peachy in paradise, your circumstances could change the second a difficult resident moves in or a renovations project goes off the rails.
So, what’s the deal — are you doomed to difficult, thankless service for the remainder of your stewardship? There’s no trick to ending disputes once and for all, but the good news is that you can build a culture in your community association on the foundations of collaboration and respect.
Here are five principles that should guide how your community association conducts business:
- Hire a lawyer. No matter the firm you choose,you need to establish a relationship with an attorney so that you are ready if things get … litigious. Now, “litigious” is a fightin’ word, so you may be wondering why “hire a lawyer” is first on this list. Hear me out — an attorney may seem like the natural enemy of the folks threatening to sue a community association, but having the right attorney on board at the outset — one who is experienced in community association law — can help you foresee and prevent many of the issues that commonly turn litigious. And if things do get litigious, a community association attorney can help you navigate ugly spats and keep costs down.
- Be transparent. Misunderstanding — which usually stems from a lack of clear communication — is one of the key drivers of discord in community associations. Be as upfront and transparent as possible about your association’s policies, how you spend assessment income, etc. You can’t blame your members for being difficult if you withhold information that they need to understand. And you can’t expect them to follow protocol if they don’t know what the protocol is. It is sad but true that many community association members simply don’t understand what a community association is or how it functions. Helping them understand these things will lay the foundation of having members who know why they pay assessments, follow governing documents, and abide by certain policies. Be transparent, but also be mindful of what information is protected by law, why it is protected, and how to effectively communicate even bad news, like special assessments, to your members. Having an experienced community association attorney on hand will help you know what information you can share and how to do it in a way that earns your members’ trust and respect.
- Be consistent. Governing consistently is how you can demonstrate fairness to your members. Consistency makes the association predictable and reliable and gives members the sense that they are in the know. Most importantly, consistency is required by the law. It can be difficult to stay consistent with constant board turnover, so be sure to properly adopt and publish all policies and document internal board policies so that future boards will know what was done in the past.
- Be empathetic. Tragedies strike and human beings are imperfect. Your community association should adopt policies for delinquencies and other infractions to ensure that everyone gets the same treatment. These policies should include warnings and an escalation process to allow members a chance to right the wrong or appeal to the board before the matter goes to an attorney. Showing your neighbors empathy bolsters feelings of community and can go a long way toward keeping legal costs down.
- Be decent and informed. That it’s often tough to sue a community association and win is not a reason for a board to take liberties with its power or to act incompetently. Eventually, someone will sue and win because of inappropriate spending, because of bad practices, or even because you inadvertently failed to follow the law. You can’t expect your members to play nice if you don’t, and you can’t expect to run a nonprofit corporation smoothly if you don’t understand your fiduciary obligations to the corporation. Good intentions are not enough; you must proactively inform yourself on how to run a community association legally.