Is Your HOA in Volunteer Crisis?

As the Fall season starts, we are looking forward to annual meetings and elections of boards of directors. Many HOA boards face the grim reality that there are not enough owner volunteers willing to fill the open seats on the board. The board members ask, cajole, beg, and guilt trip their neighbors to be on the board during the coming term, only to learn that many owners believe that serving on their HOA board is akin to having a monthly appointment at the dentist with the drill running non-stop for a long time.

The owners I am speaking about are not bowing out because they don’t have the time or availability to serve on the board. These are the owners who believe that the experience of being on the board will not be a pleasant or satisfying volunteer opportunity. Why is this?

Homeowners associations are microcosms of our democratic government: the administration is elected and can be removed by the members, and has to get the approval from the members before undertaking certain actions like raising assessments above a specified limit and amending the governing documents. And, like our national government, the constituents do not always approve of the way the administration is governing their property and their community. The difference is, on the small scale of most HOAs, the dissidents and self-appointed monitors in an HOA can strongly impact and affect community dynamics.

Over my 27 years in representing homeowners associations, I have encountered at least 20 instances where there is a homeowner or group of owners who do not trust or agree with the Board on most of its decisions. Such owners have their own ideas about the way the association should be operated, including the degree of perfection and vigilance expected or required from the board, the manager, and the service providers. And, in some of these cases, the concerned homeowner(s) becomes a watchdog, going to every board meeting, asking often to see a number of the documents that pertain to the business of the association, and questioning in lengthy and frequent emails and presentations at meetings, the wisdom or propriety of the board’s actions and decisions. If this becomes a regular dynamic, the result is growing disinterest by other homeowners in volunteering to sit on the board, serve on a committee, or simply attend an occasional board meeting.

How can the current board encourage participation from other homeowners? Generally, Board meetings need to be well-organized and tightly run.  For example, the board could establish a policy that no meeting will exceed 2 hours in length unless the board agrees at the outset that the agenda will require more than 2 hours, and will set an alternative time limit. This will require the Board to stay focused to get through the agenda in a specified timeframe.  To this end, the open meeting law in the Arizona Planned Communities Act [A.R.S. §33-1804] and Arizona Condominium Act [A.R.S. §33-1248] allows members to speak during board meetings, but permits the board to place restrictions on when and how long owners have to address the board.   In addition, the board should adopt and enforce ground rules and structure for meetings. These rules would outline procedure for board or association meetings, and would have provisions describing the civil behavior that is required, partially by giving some detail on behaviors that will not be tolerated and could result in the adjournment of the meeting.

What happens if there are no willing volunteers to replace current board and committee members who want to retire (usually after many years of uninterrupted service)? Some people think that there is a government agency that will come in and assume control of the association if the current board wants to retire and there are no replacements—there is not. Other association members believe that the community management company can operate the association without a board, but this is not the case.  Arizona law, most governing documents, and best practices require a non-profit corporation to have a board of directors. Thus, a current director’s term does not end until there is a qualified successor to take his/her place. Rather, in the worst case scenario (which I have yet to see in Tucson), the exiting board or other affected party would have to file a lawsuit to get a receiver appointed to run the association. The receiver reports back to the assigned Judge periodically, and has broad powers and authority to control the operations of the association, usually resulting in increased assessments for the homeowners.

Thus, if there is ongoing dissension or dissatisfaction continually expressed by one or more homeowners, it is important to contain and control this dynamic so that service on the board does not become an unpleasant proposition for current and prospective board members.

This article presents one perspective on one aspect of association governance and participation, and is not intended to fully address the multi-layered issue of volunteerism in HOAs.

Written by: Carolyn B. Goldschmidt
September 2014