Monday, July 29, 2013

Think before you hit send:Directors, Managers and Emails.

Not a day goes by that I do not receive an email communication from a director or a manager which requires a response and which has multiple addressees attached. Who all these people are is usually anybody's guess.

In the business world, we often preach the benefits of "closed end" communications-you send email only to those who need to be included on that particular topic. Knowing to whom you are communicating helps avoid a lot of problems down the road. The same holds true for association communications and yet far too many directors and even some managers will include people on an email query whom they would not want included in a response.

Most association directors and managers do the lion's share of their work via email. That is just a fact of life these days and certainly is a topic for another blog as to whether or not these electronic communications are unfairly squeezing out the communication that needs to take place in front of the membership.

Directors and managers need to be aware of the following when sending and receiving email communications:
  • Emails sent from or received by an email address set up for association-related communications become part of the official records and subject to inspection by the membership unless the content is otherwise privileged.
  • When adding multiple people into an email communication, there should be an identification of those people and the reason they are included on the email. For example, if you are asking your attorney for an opinion on a parking matter, you may want to advise your attorney that you've included Bob and Mary, your fellow board members, Joe the manager and Mrs. Smith who has requested the accommodation to move to another spot.
  • Remember if you include a non-board member like Mrs. Smith on your email communication, you have jeopardized your attorney-client privilege.
  • Auto complete can be a very dangerous thing, particularly if you are sending email communications on sensitive topics. You may think you have sent your email to Joe Warren when in fact you have sent it to John Walsh. Again, auto complete can result in the destruction of attorney-client privilege as well as just being a source of embarrassment should a communication wind up in the wrong inbox.
  • Ask yourself why you are adding ten people on an email communication. Will doing so help achieve your board's objective or is it being done to either grandstand or as a "cover your tracks" tactic?
  • Know that most people who receive an email with many listed recipients will automatically hit "Reply All" to that message. If having the reply go to everyone was not your intention, then you need to either state in the email to whom the response should be sent or resist the urge to send open-ended email communications in the first place.
  • Naturally, blind copying people on your email communications usually results in hurt feelings or worse.
So what do I do now when I receive emails with recipients listed with whom I am not familiar? I ask via return email to all to identify themselves prior to sending a substantive reply.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

What is keeping people from serving on their community association boards?

I just returned from a weekend in Gainesville where I met a pleasant, intelligent woman who was lamenting the uninformed state of her current board of directors. Lucy described a litany of abuses, mostly stemming from her board's unwillingness to read the governing documents and enforce them uniformly. When I asked her why she and her neighbors did not consider electing a new board or running for the board themselves, I got the answer I always get:

"No one wants to run for the board!"

That answer is hardly surprising but what is really behind the sentiment? What is keeping far too many people from serving on their community association boards?
  • Time Constraints People often cite their jobs, families and outside interests as reasons for not wanting to fill a director seat in their community. Board service does take time and the commitment varies depending upon the community type and location. Even many retired people who traditionally made up the majority demographic for volunteer directors are no longer as willing to commit precious spare time to the endeavor of community service. Sometimes all it takes is holding the regular board meetings on the same night as one's favorite TV series to make board service an impossibility.
  • Fear: Let's be honest; the press associated with being a condominium or HOA director has not been all pretty. Some would-be directors may fear being seen as the proverbial "condo commando" or may fear that covenant enforcement and delinquent assessment collection will prove confrontational. Some potential candidates for board service also may fear the legal liability associated with the role even with the safeguards of Directors' & Officers coverage in place.
  • Philosophy:  Some people who are willing to live in a shared ownership community still have a profound distrust and distaste for board service. For these folks, they are just as happy to allow someone else to handle the distasteful job of being the "enforcer".
  • Ineligibility:  Most of us agree that it is a good idea to set some ground rules about who can serve in a fiduciary position as a community association director. These parameters in Florida have evolved over the years to exclude convicted felons whose civil rights have not been restored, delinquent owners and co-owners. Although the pool of eligible candidates has been narrowed over the years, it is still not narrow enough for some people who would like to see seasonal residents added to the list of folks who cannot serve on the board.
  • Hostile Environment:  Most people do not enjoy being uncomfortable or upset and they tend to avoid situations where those feelings might occur. Dysfunctional communities who are most in need of a change in leadership are the ones least likely to secure the best candidates for directors since the messy politics has poisoned the pool. It takes a tenacious soul ready to jump into shark-infested waters to make a real change.
The foregoing are some of the most common reasons why people avoid board service like the plague. Even if your community is generally a peaceful one, the thought on most directors' and candidates' minds is that the job is a thankless one and it would be better if someone else had time to do it!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

What will Trayvon Martin's legacy be for community associations?

The widely watched criminal trial of George Zimmerman was concluded this past weekend.   The civil action brought by the family of Trayvon Martin against the homeowners' association where their son died has also been resolved, allegedly for a 7-figure sum.

What will the long-term impact be on volunteerism in shared ownership communities throughout the country?

The most obvious result should be a higher level of scrutiny of the purposes for various volunteer activities and the individuals recruited to perform same. Previously, boards worried most about their volunteers being injured while performing a service for the community, not about their volunteers harming others. In my own HOA, we have had a number of volunteer committees over the years including a Garden Committee and a Social Committee. The purpose of the Garden Committee was to beautify the community (and save money) by having volunteers do seasonal flower plantings and regular garbage pickup in our common areas. The biggest concern at the time the committee was created was that a volunteer might get heat stroke. Our Social Committee was tasked with creating a variety of community events throughout the year as well as preparing and mailing out the association's newsletter. This committee also did not seem to raise any red flags in terms of potential liability although I have since heard of other communities where social activities were designed to exclude certain residents, thereby exposing the association to a potential lawsuit.

Why do many communities use and/or encourage volunteer activity? With association finances as tight as they have been over the last few years, volunteerism is a way to continue providing essential community services on a diminished budget. However, the Trayvon Martin case proves that not every volunteer activity is safe. Many communities will now reach the conclusion that security is one area where volunteers are not a wise choice.

However, if a community is intent on looking to enhance its current security measures with a Neighborhood Watch program, it is essential that certain preliminary steps be taken:
  • The association's insurance agent should be contacted to ensure that the association is protected for the actions of volunteers;
  • The local police department should be enlisted to teach the Neighborhood Watch program what can and cannot be done legally. Typically, this includes a strict adherence to an "Observe and Report" protocol;
  • The volunteers for the Neighborhood Watch should be screened to ensure that they have not had problems in the past with violence;
  • Written guidelines should be created specifically outlining the scope of the Neighborhood Watch's authority and the role of each volunteer on the Watch;
  • The volunteers should sign releases protecting the association  in the event they are injured or killed while undertaking their Neighborhood Watch duties; and
  • The association should regularly check on the Neighborhood Watch's activities to ensure that the program is safe and that all volunteers are complying with the protocol.
It is not advisable for an association to know about a volunteer activity but to take no responsibility for same by saying they are not endorsing it. If a dangerous activity, volunteer or otherwise, is taking place on property over which the association has authority or control, the board of directors must get involved to either regulate or stop that activity.

Hopefully, Trayvon Martin's legacy in community associations will not be an end to all volunteerism but a renewed focus on the activities neighbors can undertake together which result in a healthy, harmonious community.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Do you know the Top 10 Costliest U.S. Natural Disasters from 1980-2010?

Before Superstorm Sandy, the top 10 costliest U.S. natural disasters between 1980 and 2010 caused more than $501.1 billion in damage and up to 22,240 deaths, according to the National Weather Service and the Insurance Information Institute. These events impacted both coasts and most parts in between. 

There have been many ongoing pleas for years now to convert the federal flood insurance program into a national catastrophic insurance program which would cover all natural disasters including wildfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and ice storms. Of course, the countervailing argument points out the paucity of coverage under the national flood program as well as the fact that this federal program is essentially bankrupt from year to year.

·         Hurricane Katrina, 2005
Biggest impact:  Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi
Damage:  $145 billion
Deaths:  1,833

·         Drought and Heat Wave, 1988
Biggest impact:  Central and Eastern U.S.
Damage:  $76.4 billion
Deaths:  5,000 to 10,000

·         Northridge Earthquake, 1994
Biggest impact:  California
Damage:  $67 billion
Deaths:  60

·         Drought and Heat Wave, 1980
Biggest impact:  Central and Eastern U.S.
Damage:  $54.8 billion
Deaths:  10,000

·         Hurricane Andrew, 1992
Biggest impact:  Florida, Louisiana
Damage:  43.5 billion
Deaths:  61

·         Midwestern Floods, 1993
Biggest impact:  Central U.S.
Damage:  $32.8 billion
Deaths:  48

·         Hurricane Ike, 2008
Biggest impact:  Louisiana, Texas
Damage:  $28.4 billion
Deaths:  112

·         Hurricane Wilma, 2005
Biggest impact:  Florida
Damage:  $18.6 billion
Deaths:  35

·         Hurricane Charley, 2006
Biggest impact:  Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina
Damage:  $17.9 billion
Deaths:  35

·         Hurricane Ivan, 2004
Biggest impact:  Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Texas
Damage:  $16.7 billion

Deaths:  57

Given the losses we've already suffered over the last few decades and the likelihood that these will continue or even escalate, perhaps it is time to roll up our sleeves and finally make a national catastrophe policy a reality?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

What lengths would you go to in order to stop speeding in your community?

Almost every kind of community experiences a problem with speeding drivers at one point or another.  Just who are the culprits in most communities? Residents, guests, vendors, teen drivers, elderly drivers, busy moms, distracted dads; almost every category of driver has been a little heavy-footed at times.

One of my HOA clients  has had a debate for years over how to solve a speeding problem which is particularly troubling given that they share their roads with a country club whose members sometimes leave the premises after imbibing too much alcohol.  Since theirs is a neighborhood like many others in Florida where folks like to walk, it can become a terrifying adventure, particularly at night, if you come across the wrong driver at the wrong time.

This community has installed clear speed limit signs throughout the neighborhood and some homeowners have even placed those children at play signs on their property.   Vendors who enter the community and are spotted speeding through the streets are advised that they will not be granted access in the future if the practice continues. The community considered speed bumps but was told by the city that they would not approve them. The board has arranged to regularly install those curbside electronic speed monitoring stations which flash the speed of passing motorists but even that has had little impact on the driving habits inside the community. Since this is a guard-gated community with private roads, the police rarely patrol the roads which means most drivers realize they are not likely to be ticketed for their poor driving once inside.

Fortunately, a tragedy has yet to occur in this community but other communities have not fared as well. There have been traffic-related injuries and even fatalities in communities with resulting legal action brought against boards and even management companies for failing to implement sound traffic controls. One Colorado homeowners' association recently purchased a laser gun and announced that it would begin issuing tickets and fines to drivers who exceed their posted speed limits. Whether or not those enforcement tactics will be upheld remains to be seen but it does underscore the sheer frustration that many associations experience when it comes to drivers speeding on their roads and inside their parking areas.

So how does your community handle this problem currently and what new tools would you like to have at your disposal?