For the last few weeks, I have been communicating with a gentleman who lives in a very large planned community: one of those developments with so many sub-associations and residents that it could certainly be incorporated as its own municipality at some point.
This man (we'll call him Mr. Smith) outlined a litany of serious problems in his community and told a tale of graft, greed and corruption that was hard to believe. Mr. Smith had been doing battle with a group that he described as operating as a de facto master association with no documentary authority whatsoever.
In order to get better, he advised that the community needed a new board, new management and new lawyers. Mr. Smith clearly had goals but no idea how to accomplish them. My first problem when trying to help Mr. Smith was the need to sift through emails that consisted of no less than 20 paragraphs each time. The second challenge was getting Mr. Smith to answer basic questions about what he had previously done to effectuate change, how many of his neighbors supported his efforts and what kind of resources he had amassed to do battle.
At this point, Mr. Smith has little more than a list of serious complaints and a desire to change his community. What he needs is a strategy, some resources and an advocate to assist him. At this point, I am not confident that all of Mr. Smith's assertions are correct nor am I confident that I can assist him. What has resulted from my communications with him is the following checklist for individuals wishing to make real changes in their community and the shortest, most efficient path to take.
1. Always start with communication. If you suspect things are awry, schedule an appointment with the board and see if you can sit down and have a dialogue. It is easier to do this outside an open meeting where the board may feel attacked in front of the membership. If you are given the chance to speak privately with the board, don't start out with accusations; start with questions and listen.
2. If you cannot speak with the board or those communications don't result in change, the next step is to start gathering information. Owners are entitled to review the association's governing documents so review them. It would be more productive to have a list of specific documents you wish to inspect as opposed to a 'fishing expedition' that could take days or weeks. If you are denied the opportunity to inspect your the association's official records, keep track of all communications in that regard.
3. Speak to your neighbors and see if they have had similar experiences and observations. This does not mean slandering the board, making wild accusations that are unsupported or other nonproductive communications. If you are to gather your neighbors' support, you will have to present yourself as reasonable, concerned and legitimate. If none of your neighbors agree with your concerns, that is the first sign that this problem might be exclusive to you and your sensitivities or your unique perspective. If that is the case, your chances of changing an entire community to suit your needs is slim.
4. Contact the Division and/or Ombudsman's Office if the nature of your complaint is the proper subject matter for either of these agencies. These resources are free but your expectations must be reasonable about the length of time it may take them to assist you and their ability to fully resolve the problem.
5. Ask yourself how much you are really willing to spend to make the changes you think are necessary. Most attorneys are not likely to take your case on a pro bono basis and contacting your legislator's office to fight a personal battle with your board is not likely to accomplish your goals either.
6. When you find an attorney with whom you'd like to pursue the matter, keep your communications clear and concise. Avoid editorializing and keep your assumptions and accusations to a minimum. Stick to the facts so he or she can map out the most effective strategy for you. If more than one attorney tells you that you have little to no chance at successfully pursuing your matter, you should listen.
Change can happen in community associations that are in need of it. I've seen and personally assisted individuals making those kinds of changes. However, the folks who are successful at this always have the following in common: they are reasonable and rational, they have significant community support and resources and they have taken the time to map out a sound strategy and follow it diligently to the end. The old saying: "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there" really holds true in these situations.