Going Too Far Down the Rabbit Hole: How Our National Political Discourse Parallels Our Community Association Discourse
It’s hard right now to turn away from the 24/7 news cycle and its discord, rancor and heated rhetoric. When we spend the majority of our time discussing just 20% of the topics which concern us, we cannot commit time or energy to the other 80% which also demands our attention. It’s not surprising that the same prioritization pressure occurs in private residential communities. How often has a board or membership meeting been monopolized by the concerns of one very vocal owner? That owner may very well have legitimate concerns but that still does not justify how some communities seem to be the equivalent of the tail wagging the dog.
We live in a world of increasing oppositions; it’s becoming harder to find a middle ground on most topics. For those of us who work with and live in community associations, the current state of political discourse in America sadly comes as no surprise. In fact, there are some eerie similarities that reveal a few uncomfortable truths about our society.
Name calling, speaking (and yelling) over others, character assassination, accusations, conspiracy theories, and filibustering are never productive and usually reflect a certain intellectual laziness. Fake news and alternative facts have been employed for decades in some communities where facts matter less than agendas and can be employed equally by both members looking to oust a board as well as boards looking to shut down opposition. the best way to do battle with this problem is to have a membership comprised of people willing to undertake an independent analysis of the situation rather than relying on someone else’s version of the truth. When id doubt, just remember this quote by Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
Calls to remove leaders are nothing new. Unfortunately, the recent changes to Florida law will make it less likely that recalled board members will challenge even a questionable recall petition if they must do so by paying for such a challenge out of their own pockets.
Conflicts of interest can erode the trust between an elected official and the people who elected him or her. Just as some members of Congress have filed litigation based on the Emoluments Clause in the U.S. Constitution, a perception that a board member has an undisclosed conflict of interest can lead to dissatisfaction at best and recall and litigation at worst. It’s impossible to serve two masters so if you have agreed to serve on your community’s board of directors, your decisions must be based on what is best for the community and no longer what is in your best interests.
Just as we have spent an inordinate amount to time on a national discussion concerning the improper use of emails and sloppy email protocol, some directors completely underestimate the trouble a lack of email protocol can cause. The failure to understand, let alone embrace, best practices when it comes to email protocol which includes safeguarding privileged information and employing language which is designed to achieve a goal not blow it up, can make a small flare-up quickly turn into a full-blown conflagration.
Recently, a new client asked me about what can be done to stop leaks and leakers on their board. Just how did one roofing vendor reduce his bid to make it lower than the bid that was going to contract? Leaks on community association boards are often designed to do nothing more than embarrass a board member or officer (or help a vendor friend) but occasionally they cause a lot more damage including an anticipatory breach of contract claim. When it comes to litigation matters or pursuing insurance claims, closed-loop communications are crucial to the ability to minimize the association’s exposure in the former instance and maximize its recovery in the latter circumstance.
Building a proverbial wall can become the turning point in a community. Some directors have very firm ideas about the material improvements they would like to make in their community and how to pay for those improvements, either by special assessment or loan. Often these ideas are not as wildly popular with the association members as Mr. or Ms. Director would like to believe. It is always best to gauge community sentiment before embarking on costly and potentially divisive projects.
Inevitably, the issue of personality conflicts arises in many communities. Dealing with personality issues (as exhibited by board members, owners or both) can be one of the toughest problems to solve in a shared ownership community. It is important to remember that your conflicts involve a “living together” relationship so patience, empathy and updated emergency contacts are some of your best tools when dealing with sensitive behavioral problems.
Finally, the potential for violence is the most disturbing comparison of all between the national stage and our local communities. There have been sporadic reports of violence in community associations over the years. Two that come to mind include a manger who was shot in the head (but mercifully survived) by a disgruntled former association employee and a board member shot and killed by a fellow director as they argued over association matters. Violence is never the answer but it does underscore how a ‘pressure cooker’ situation can blow the lid off any society, micro or macro.
The ability to find some middle ground is sadly disappearing from the national stage and it is, unfortunately, no different in some of our communities but our disgust with our national discourse might just lead us to insist that our association affairs be handled more productively.