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This Old Board The Upsides and Downsides of Long-Serving Board Members

Rachel recently bought a condo in Chicago’s bustling Lakeview neighborhood—and from the outset, she didn’t take the process of purchasing a home lightly.

“I’m a first time homebuyer,” says Rachel, “and I was pretty specific about the neighborhood I wanted, the amenities I required, and the amount I could afford,” she said. After looking at more than 60 properties with her realtor, it was the charming foyer, the in-unit washer and dryer, and the spacious master bathroom in her new home that sealed the deal for Rachel. “Everything about it was pretty much perfect,” she says. “Once my offer was accepted, the process went pretty fast and I was moved in by the end of the month. I love it here—for the most part.”

The Value of Veterans

Unfortunately, the comforting hum of the washing machine does little to soothe the turmoil that churns amongst the board members in Rachel’s building. “There are some problems,” Rachel admits. “And they mostly stem from the old school members of the board.” In Rachel’s 15-unit self-managed building, some serious interpersonal issues between board members are causing strife. “The building is only about 16 years old,” says Rachel, “but some of the residents have been here since the beginning, and I think they can’t move past the ‘old days'—or just don't want to. They either want it to be like that again, or they dredge up old war stories and gripes about what they have been through and how they feel like we are backsliding as a building. They fight amongst themselves too, and I feel like I have to take sides. I talked to another newer owner in the building who felt the same way—he said it was like watching his parents fight over ancient history.”

We’ve all been faced with the old guard; in our buildings, at our jobs and in our communities. While their long history and experience can be beneficial and informative, when clung to for too long, however, it can also hold back improvements, new ideas and uncensored communication. Even worse, these senior members can create a despotic atmosphere, with a single member making the whole building feel like their own little fiefdom.

As Kurt R. Kojzarek, vice president of marketing at Property Specialists, Inc. in Rolling Meadows explains, there are benefits to having a veteran board member running a condo building or homeowners association.

“It's best not to swap horses mid-stream,” he says, advising boards and residents to allow their leadership the opportunity to follow through until an ongoing task is completed. Veteran board members not only bring enthusiasm and passion for their community to the board, but they also bring an elevated level of historical perspective and knowledge from dealing with the various vendors, contractors and overall issues facing the community. This is why many of our communities with larger boards stagger terms to insure that at no time is the board comprised solely of freshmen members.”

Michael E. Rutkowski, AMS, CMCA, president of First Community Management in Chicago, concurs. “The biggest benefits are continuity and the knowledge base the member [may] have. There is no need to reinvent the wheel after every election—you have someone who can mentor the new board members and show them the ropes. Should a problem of some sort arise with the structure, you have someone on board who can say, ‘That happened ten years ago, we installed such-and-such piece of equipment, and solved the problem’ is a huge benefit to that association.”

On the front lines in her building, Rachel notes that the history these veteran board members provided was helpful, especially to her as a new member. “At the first board meeting I attended, it was actually really cool to get that ‘Knowledge of the Building 101’ lesson,” she says. “It helped me know firsthand that the building was really safe, and that there was very little history of theft. I found out that my downstairs neighbor knew all the local handymen and repair service people really well, and that because of years of service, our building got a deal on repair costs. But I also learned that the people on the top floor hate the people on the bottom floor because one of them was the treasurer of the board years ago and totally screwed up the reserves.”

New Faces, New Ideas

Beyond the long-running drama and soured relationships between old residents and board members, Kojzarek notes that “The most frequently used counterargument to incumbency is complacency. New faces, ideas and solutions are a welcomed addition to boards. There are times when you are fixated on a problem for so long, you become unable to find the solution that could be obvious to a set of fresh eyes. Re-examining long standing policies to determine if they still meet today’s issues can often add productivity and reduce costs. With board members serving in a volunteer capacity, the longer you serve, the more likely you are to grow tired and uninterested. New leaders can bring more enthusiasm to a board, since they're not yet saddled with years of complaints or disputes with other board members or even neighbors.”

The worry, of course, as Rutkowski points out, is a stubbornness to accept that enthusiasm and ‘fresh eyes.’ “A board member [might not be] open to new ideas. I can think of one specific instance where the association was still running a 20-year-old DOS-based accounting system. Even though there are dozens of low-cost accounting and management products out there, this member simply did not want to learn a new system. He made it his mission to convince other board members that the antiquated system had to stay.”

This misguided approach can lead to problems beyond dusty accounting practices; it can also damage the building in long and short term ways. Rachel points out that knowing about the in-fighting among board members in her building might have made her second-guess her purchase.

“I had access to some of the board minutes from the past year before I signed for my condo,” she says, “but I didn’t really give them a close look. Once I got my hands on all the minutes for the past 16 years, I saw the issues with the board leadership—they have all been around since the beginning, and they have been stuck in their ways and stubborn on a lot of issues that ended up costing the building money. Though I’m still happy with where I live, it would have given me pause to know all this.” Rachel’s board dragged their feet on an expensive elevator upgrade that was suggested by some newer residents, and as a result had to deal with costly emergency repairs when the elevator recently broke down entirely.

Rachel also explains that despite the issues with the current board, “I can tell that none of the new people really want to step up to the plate. I don’t know if that is because the current board is intimidating, or if people are just not interested in getting involved. Because of this, it looks like this board will be our board for awhile—at least until someone takes a more active position.”

Making a Change

If unhappy residents and board members want to make a change but don’t feel comfortable doing so through stepping up to lead, they can turn to Illinois state law and other resources to help, though getting outside legal assistance might be necessary. As Kojzarek explains, “Based upon Section 18(a)(11) of the Condominium Act, members of the board may succeed themselves, so instituting term limits may not meet the requirements of state statute. This would be an issue in which I would advise anyone seeking to institute such a rule to consult an attorney for guidance and assistance. If owners are dissatisfied with the direction of their association, or with a specific member of the board, the ultimate term limit action one can take is to simply participate within the democratic process and vote them off the board at the next election.”

If the association has a general problem with resident apathy and lack of interest however, says Kojzarek, “Creation of a term limiting action would likely result in boards being unable to find enough willing persons to run and serve on their boards.” Kojzarek also points out the requirements about holding board elections and notifying residents about upcoming elections, “Notice of the Annual Meeting setting the date, time and place must be mailed no less than ten (10) days and more than thirty (30) days prior to the meeting. Notices are sent by mail to the unit owner’s home address.

According to Rutkowski, if your building has a management company involved, the manager usually handles this and it is not affected. If a self-managed condo community finds it necessary to implement term limits within their bylaws, they should consult an attorney who can advise on the requirements to do so.

Regardless of the number of years that your board members have logged, the most important issue is the board allows for open communication and new ideas, and that they make choices with the building’s best interest at heart.

Rachel is getting ready to run for secretary of her board when new elections come up in the fall. “I’m nervous to jump into that fire, but I also think it is important to make change, not just complain about the people in charge.” n

Rebecca Fons is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator.

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