Once again we read about an unhappy owner in his homeowners association acting out his aggression toward the association’s board of directors. This time, the owner shot and killed two members of the association’s board of directors because the board approved removal of three pine trees that shielded the owner’s view of overhead power lines behind his home.
Is it just our collective imaginations, or is there really more aggression and violence toward association boards? I suspect it is not just our imaginations. While some of the evidence is anecdotal, here in our office it truly seems that association boards face more hostility, aggression and violence.
What can a board do to minimize these risks? Service on an association’s board of directors should not be a call to hazardous duty. What the board should remember is that, when you are dealing with people’s homes, it can be very emotional no matter how much you try to run the association like a business. Often times the issues we and the board deal with are emotionally highly charged. We, tongue-in-cheek, say that this practice is domestic law for real estate.
So what can a board do to minimize risk? I don’t pretend to be a psychologist, or have any particular insight into people’s minds. But here are some things that we recommend when we expect an emotionally charged situation:
1. Be prepared with information and facts. Try to remove bias or opinions from the decision making process. This can be difficult to do, particularly when you are dealing with something like what is aesthetically pleasing. Remember the old adage, what is one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. But keep in mind that one of the board’s primary functions is to maintain property values. Does that play equipment in the neighbor’s back yard really devalue other properties in the community?
2. Hire and follow the advice of experts. We know that experts can be expensive. However, under Colorado law, not only is the board protected from liability if it follows the advise of a qualified expert, the right expert can also remove the appearance of bias from the board’s decision making process. Of course, you have to make sure that the expert doesn’t just appear to be in the board’s pocket and advancing a position simply because that is the position the board is promoting.
3. Be open and communicative. Let your members know what is being done, and why. If the issue has the potential to be controversial, make sure you are being deliberative, communicating with owners (via newsletters, emails, social media feeds, informational meetings, etc.). This builds a sense of trust. Conversely, taking action without open communication leads to suspicion – what is the board hiding? The board or the individual directors must be feathering their own nests.
4. Be willing to consider both sides of a position, and find solutions, even if it means compromising. Imagine yourself stepping into the shoes of the members, or an individual member who may be affected by the proposed action. Communicate with those members, or that individual member. Gain a complete understanding of their position. Explore other alternatives. If there are no other alternatives, see if something can be done to ease the impact on the member.
5. Don’t perpetuate a culture of conflict. Sometimes the board is lead by a director with a take-charge attitude. While that characteristic can be helpful in business, and in many circumstances can be good for the association, such a person may not be the best person to lead the association in all cases. Strong personalities can increase conflict, and foster a sense of helplessness or ineffectiveness by the other members. A member with a strong personality too can easily lead to personality clashes that rarely lead to conflict resolution. The board should foster a sense of reasonableness and understanding.
6. Consider mediating a difficult issue. Mediation involves bringing in a neutral third party to try and help the parties find a solution. While the intricacies of mediation are too detailed for this particular post, it can be an effective solution. Unfortunately, mediation is sometimes the first time the parties on either side of an issue have sat down, face to face and looked each other in the eye and discussed their differences. But, because a dispute resolved by mediation requires input from the parties on both sides of an issue, it generally leads to better acceptance by the parties.
7. If you anticipate a difficult meeting, have security available, or have the police on standby. Make arrangements in advance, and if the meeting escalates to an uncomfortable level, you can adjourn the meeting, and/or seek the assistance of security or the policy. Often times, having security or the police present during the meeting has a calming effect. But, do not expect that this will resolve the issue – this will only address any immediate threat. You must still deal with the substantive issue and resolve it.
8. You are not the police, and legal action by the association is rarely an adequate substitute for police enforcement. We get numerous requests from associations to go to court and seek protective orders, or temporary restraining orders. While this can occasionally be an effective tool if a director is actually threatened, or feels threatened, it is rarely as effective as calling the police. Use this remedy judiciously.
If you have other ideas or methods that help de-escalate the emotional impact of board decisions, we would love to hear them.