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Communities are better run with support from informed owners
By Jordan Shifrin | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 4/9/2010 12:01 AM

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OK, so now you have chosen to live in a community that is becoming the predominant lifestyle in our society. A home that is subject to some type of rule of law enforced by an association, governed by a volunteer board, elected by the owners with an entire set of rules that may be far more restrictive than local, state and federal codes and ordinances.

What do you want your association to do for you, and not do to you? What are you willing and able to contribute, or do you just want to be left alone? How do you want your neighbors to behave? What should the property look like? How long are you going to live there?

These are important questions, but rarely do people who buy a new home ask this of themselves.

It seems that most people are purely "reactive" to what happens in their community, as opposed to proactive. Apathy aside, most people want to get up, go to work, come home and eat dinner, watch some TV and go to bed. They do not want to be bothered with what goes on in the association until it either disrupts their peaceful enjoyment of their home or costs them a lot more money.

This is not a call for people to get involved (as that is not the nature of our species), but rather an inquiry to you as an owner, as to whether you have any idea as to what goes on in your association? And, should you care to get involved, speak up or even just state an opinion, here are some examples of how the democratic process has evolved in some associations. If this were where you lived, would you want to see this occur?

Example one: An owner who no one is quite sure how he supports himself, decides the association does not serve his needs, but has no intention of moving. He creates his own organization within the association, recruits aggressively, holds his own meetings, produces his own newsletter and makes demands upon the board to be accountable to his small group of concerned owners.

Never satisfied with the result, he solicits a large number of proxies for the annual election and gets himself elected to the board. Now everything the board does is rehashed with his own group, who is now dictating policy and decision making to the board. When an open meeting is held, he is disruptive, his group attends en masse and is disorderly and the duly elected board is constantly on the defensive. When there is a closed confidential session, he breaches confidentiality and reports the proceedings to his group.

Example two: Similar, yet different in this respect. This owner has no intention of serving on the board. Rather, she has meetings with her group to second-guess every decision the board makes, and then at the next meeting attacks the board and challenges every move it made. She dominates the open forum before the meeting and continues on all evening, interrupting the president, shouting out comments and questioning the board every time it votes. She is disrespectful to all, but particularly the property manager, and always says she talked to her attorney but never gives a name.

Example three: The board president is unemployed. He has been on and off the delinquent list for years. He attends every meeting fully unprepared and asks questions of the manager about things that are already spelled out in the management report or were voted on at prior meetings. The board members are intimidated by him and he keeps getting re-elected because nobody wants to serve with him or challenge him. Some bad decisions have been made because he refuses to follow the manager's recommendations and bullies the other directors until he gets his way. He often attends the meeting impaired.

Example four: The manager, a seemingly seasoned veteran, is a know-it-all. Disregarding the commentary of any board members or tossing aside any suggestions from an informed owner, she leads the board in all matters. When a legal issue arises, she answers the question. "Why spend the money on the attorney? I know this." She insists on using a small stable of favored contractors. She is not good at follow-up, bumbles her way through the customer service complaints and makes excuses at every turn. When confronted, she becomes aggressive and bullies the inquisitor into submission.

These are just some of the common examples that go on at various properties, year in and year out. Does this seem far-fetched? Could this really happen in your community? For many of you, it may very well be going on.

Needless to say, if you throw out the newsletter, never go to a meeting, never pick up the phone and talk to someone who is either on the board or a committee, you never are going to know what is going on. Then, when you find out that the roof that the board put on two years ago is failing because the board hired the cheapest contractor without getting competitive bids from quality contractors on professionally drawn specifications, you can't complain about the $2,000 special assessment.

There are basic elements in the day-to-day operation of an association, notwithstanding natural disasters or unforeseen emergencies.

One, since the board consists of volunteer homeowners, they do not need to have their job made any more difficult by people who are unwilling to step up or follow the rules. There are people in this world who find fault with everything; chronic complainers who nitpick everything unless you agree with them, but are on the whole, never satisfied. This is where the board really needs the moral and vocal support of the owners. Even if you do not want to get involved yourself, sometimes a kind word of thanks, or standing up for the board when they are unjustly attacked, is enough to keep them working for your benefit.

Two, since most properties are managed by a professional company, that account manager who is on the firing line should be receiving support and assistance until it is clear they are unwilling or incapable of working with the board and the owners. In that instance, it is imperative to sit down with their supervisor or the owner of the company and have an accountability session. But you have to keep in perspective the fact that this person is on call 24/7 and is probably underpaid for the job they have to do, and have procedures in place with every different board, each doing things their own way. Some boards want the manager to do everything; some boards micromanage and second-guess every decision. This is why communication in establishing the relationship and the desired management style is critical.

Three, there must be a "team" of qualified, experienced professionals providing the day-to-day services, even if the association is self-managed. Continuity for someone doing a good job is not a sin. This does not mean you have to rebid every year for the same services. Nowhere is it written or legally required. Cheaper is not necessarily better and in the long run becomes more expensive when things have to be redone because mistakes are made or everything has to start from scratch.

Ultimately, if you are reading this and it all sounds alien to you, or you were not aware of these types of things going on, maybe it is time to go to a meeting, or read the newsletter, or write an "atta' girl" letter to the board about the manager or even about the board itself. If more people did this once in a while, your attorney would never get an inquiry about how can we get good people to run for the board or where do we get a good manager since we have been changing every year.

• Jordan Shifrin is an attorney with Kovitz Shifrin Nesbit in Buffalo Grove. Send questions for the column to him at This column is not a substitute for consultation with legal counsel. Past columns can be read at