Monster Meetings Stick to the Rules to Control Meetings

Monster Meetings

The headline of a recent Walpole, Massachusetts newspaper article read: “Fight between Walpole selectmen cuts meeting short.” The first sentence of the article stated, “Selectmen came to verbal blows on Tuesday night, prompting other board members to cut the meeting short as two of their colleagues took the altercation outside.”

It sounds like it could have been from an episode of a reality show called Board Meetings Gone Wild,’ where viewers watch meetings that are out of control, overlong, unproductive or, as in this case, downright hostile. Even comedian Dave Barry said of meetings, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve its full potential, that word would be 'meetings.'”

The scary part is that this is reality. In some cases, board meetings devolve into ‘verbal blows’ and, in some extreme cases, physical confrontations. Board meetings can get very heated. Different ideas, differences of opinion and different agendas can cause so much stress in a meeting where people want to give their opinions, solve problems, make decisions, vote and get back home to their families. As a result, board meetings should have a protocol or policy in place for when things get a little tense and tempers start to flare out of control.

Needless Stress

Jill Dennard has been a board member of her condo association’s board since 2011. She describes some of their monthly board meetings as ‘contentious,’ but stops far short from comparing it to a Jerry Springer-type battle with punches and chairs flying across the room.

“However, it’s stressful to go to board meetings with your armor on,” she says. “Nobody is going to sucker-punch you, but the stress and anxiety is enough. It doesn’t give you motivation to stay on the board. I don’t think board members are appreciated.”

Dennard explains that, unfortunately, members volunteer with an agenda and their own points of view that can get in the way of getting business done.

In his book, The Perfect Board, author Calvin Clemens writes, “The Perfect Board” is probably a goal that can never be reached. “Given the manner in which people work with one another, it is doubtful that consistent harmony can be achieved. But maybe that is the goal. Working together, moving the organization forward, instead of individual or selfish pursuits.”

Dennard wholeheartedly agrees. “Life in an association is not idyllic,” she says. “People have different agendas; different points of view and they don’t work on compromise. How productive meetings are all comes down to the board’s skill set. I work on a corporate skill set. In my job, I’m required to put in my point of view, but moderate and compromise to get my goal accomplished. A lot of board members don’t have those skill sets. There are some who are so inexperienced and unqualified—they haven’t even taken care of money or handled a balance sheet.”

Not an Open Book

Some association boards have been viewed as inclusive and hostile to unit owners that wanted to sit in on a meeting, and have even gone so far as to call the police when someone was recording the meeting for their own personal use or attempting to speak on a particular controversy.

Attorney Donna DiMaggio Berger, a shareholder with the law firm of Becker & Poliakoff in Fort Lauderdale, said there is a fine line to draw when holding board meetings, especially heated ones. “Naturally, owners should not be ejected from board, committee and membership meetings without a compelling reason to do so,” Berger says. “If an owner is being unruly, threatening or otherwise preventing the meeting from proceeding, it is reasonable to warn him or her to stop the behavior and then to either adjourn the meeting or eject that person from the premises so the meeting may proceed.”

She says that a person’s legal and constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech, have to be taken into consideration. “However, ejecting someone to silence them is not appropriate and it is surprising that a police officer would actually follow those orders in the absence of any proof that the individual truly warrants being removed.”

Berger notes that in a perfect world boards would operate transparently and in the best interests of the community that it serves. However, that is not always the case. If the issue cannot be resolved amicably, legal or administrative action might be warranted. The board may also be recalled, and a new board with a different philosophy on how association operations should be managed, can be elected, she says.

Dennard knows what it’s like to be on a board where things run smoothly. “I’m on an advisory board for my town, and it runs in a much more parliamentary fashion,” she says. “We have agenda and stick to it—that’s critical.”

Jay Mangel, the business development manager for Exclusive Property Management in Fort Lauderdale agrees. “In order to run an effective board meeting, you must have a very specific agenda,” he says. “It’s also important to come prepared. You should bring everything that’s associated with the agenda. A few things that come to mind are the financials, a delinquency report, a violation report or an updated vendor list. Everything revolves around the agenda.”

“The most important part of running an effective board meeting is having an agenda that is directly to the point,” says Mary King, CAM, the marketing manager for the Central Florida office of Sentry Management Inc. in Longwood. “The manager has to be prepared and the board has to be informed. It’s important that you stay calm and allow people to talk so that their voice is heard. You should also stick to a time limit.”

Experts also believe that the time of the day of the meeting is important; for example, morning meetings are often more efficient than evening ones because people are focused and want to get to work.

No matter whether you're holding a monthly or quarterly board meeting, or a big annual residents' meeting with a couple hundred people; these guidelines apply everywhere. Without them, chaos can ensue. A few years ago in Birmingham, Alabama, a school board meeting ended up with police reports being filed when one board member punched another.

I Will Have Order!

One way to guide a potentially Boards Gone Wild meeting back onto a productive path may be to consult Robert’s Rules of Order, a classic work of wisdom that has been helping keep parliamentary procedures on track for more than a century. The Rules are spell out in explicit detail (often in more detail than a condo board would need, in fact) how to run a meeting, form the proper way of introducing a new item of business, vote on it, and close the floor for discussion.

“Robert’s Rules is always the better way to go,” says Mangel. “When you let a board-run meeting it can go quite lengthy and not get anything accomplished. Typically a management company will keep things on time and cool and collected. It’s important to understand that the management company was hired for a reason—to help and assist the board and that what we’re here to do, especially for board meetings.”

“Our office provides an abbreviated version of Robert’s Rules of Order, which is less than 15 pages in length and illustrates the parliamentary process to instruct boards on proper motions, amendments and the taking of minutes of the meetings,” says Coral Springs-based lawyer Russell M. Robbins, who is managing partner of the community association law firm of Mirza Basulto & Robbins LLP. “The chairperson of the meeting should be familiar with the process in order to encourage the other officers or directors.”

Open Meetings

Experts advise all boards to start reading the condo documents to check if owners or residents are even allowed to attend board meetings. “Just the board is required to come to board meetings,” says Mangel. “Sometimes boards will have a closed meeting, but in most cases residents are allowed to attend. 99 percent of the time the management company comes to meetings. Most board members don’t fully understand the laws governing Florida’s condominiums and homeowner associations, and we do.”

“In most associations very few residents attend their board meetings,” says Robbins. “I encourage the associations to be flexible in the conducting of the meetings, so long as the interruptions are infrequent. I also encourage the board to address resident concerns in the beginning of the meeting, as few owners wish to wait until the conclusion of the board meeting to address minor matters that they wish to bring to the board or management’s attention.”

“The most important thing that a Board of Directors can do to ensure that meetings run smoothly is to allow people to voice their opinions at meetings,” says Eric M. Glazer, an attorney and founding partner of the law firm of Glazer & Associates, P.A in Fort Lauderdale. “Even if the opinion of the unit owner is way off base in the opinion of the board, failure to allow that unit owner to finalize their remarks will often times enrage other members of the community and throw the room into an uproar. By listening, without interruption and negative comment, the members of the community perceive that their board is listening to their concerns and actually care about what they have to say.”

Surprises are good for birthday parties, wedding and baby announcements and flash mobs. They aren’t good for board meetings. “If you come prepared with everything associated with the agenda there should be no surprises,” says Mangel. “You should always have the necessary documents, because you never know who is going to come up and question something.”

Occasionally, you may have to deal with insensitive or politically-incorrect comments from one resident about another. Comments like this can create hostility not only between the people directly involved, but can spread outward and affect the morale and self-esteem of the entire building community. A manager or board’s job is to defuse the situation as quickly as possible, evaluate each conflict and try to come up with a solution that works for both sides.

In the book, Community Associations: A Guide to Successful Management by Stephen R. Barber, CPM and Vickie Gaskill, CPM, the authors suggest several tips to make a board meeting more productive. One important one: “Enforce ground rules.” They write, “For example, use courtesy, let one person speak at a time, allow no interruptions and have no ridiculing of another person’s opinion. Members frequently show up for meetings simply because they have a passion for one particular issue. If the president has established some basic ground rules at the beginning of the meeting, he or she will have the support of the majority of participants when the time comes to intercede and close the discussion.”

Dave Barry made a joke about meetings, but the bottom line is that board meetings are no laughing matter and need to be organized, efficient and effective.

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Western & Central Florida Cooperator. Staff writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.