Security vs. Privacy Striking the Balance in HOAs

Security vs. Privacy

When we step through our front doors and turn the lock behind us, we expect to feel content in the knowledge that we are safe and sound in our home, and the community in which we live. The boards and managers who oversee these communities also are seeking to ensure that safety is a top priority, and that residents do not have to worry about the well-being of themselves, their families or their property.

But where is the line between security...and snooping? Today, a broad range of options exist when it comes to monitoring and securing properties, and it is a field that continues to evolve as new technologies emerge. At times, these technologies may stir up questions regarding privacy, but for many communities, those issues are outweighed by a desire to have as many safeguards as possible in place.

“Security is a key factor for individuals and families when choosing a residence,” says Janett McMillan of ADT Security Services. “For this reason, awareness is heightened and a high level of security is now an expectation.”

Keeping Safe

The ways in which co-op and condo communities approach security have changed over the years, moving from a reliance on security guards and regular patrols to more access control and visual monitoring.

Most recently, “There’s a trend away from manned guard gates to electronic systems,” says attorney Jeff Rembaum, a partner with the law firm of Kaye Bender Rembaum in Pompano Beach. For example, asking residents to hold a driver’s license up to a camera to gain access to an association's grounds. “It saves a lot of money for the average community,” he adds. For 24 hour/seven day a week on-site security personnel, a condo community or association could be paying upwards of $100,000 annually. Electronic surveillance or access control can represent serious savings, Rembaum says.

For most condo communities, cost is the foremost factor in determining what type of access control or security measures are instituted. “The association’s budget plays a big part,” says McMillan. “There are many levels of security available and options for customizing security plans to fit a community’s needs and budget.”

For communities where budget is not so much of a concern, boards and managers may be able to invest in a having on-site personnel to help manage access control. For the majority of other communities considering security or safety measures, the comparatively reasonable cost of an electronic access system or camera system makes it a popular choice. These considerations are especially important in gated communities, which use their safety and security as key selling points.

The most common types of security measures used in today's HOAs cover a broad spectrum. “A combination of solutions for bulk monitoring of residential and community-owned security systems, CCTV, access control, perimeter protection and panic alarms in fitness centers and common areas are important components of the security program,” says McMillan. In addition, video cameras and surveillance aids in crime prevention, detection and in helping to limit issues of liability.

Security and Liability

In addition to questions of finance, issues of liability and risk also factor into the type of security system communities choose to implement. In fact, these issues should be considered seriously before deciding whether or not to add security at all.

“I don’t like the idea of a security program, but if the board has voted to have security, then it’s a good idea to have a security committee,” says attorney Sue Ellen Krick of the Law Offices of Kevin T. Wells in Sarasota. This group of volunteer board members will be asked to serve as liaisons between the community and the professional security firm that Krick and other attorneys suggest should be hired to handle on-site safety.

“If a decision to provide security is made, the association should not be party to providing it,” says Krick. “The last thing I want to see is a sign-up sheet in the clubhouse asking who wants to join the neighborhood patrol. Whatever company is hired, [all aspects of security] should be totally on them. Duties and liabilities should all be on them. It gripes me to see vendors who try to put the liability off on the association. Don’t sign a contract where the security company has not provided for indemnification. And the association should be named as an additional insured. Always, always bring in your insurance carrier before signing a contract.”

And always bring in your attorney to review it as well—especially when something as high-stakes as security is in play. “The thousand dollars you spend now (to have the contract reviewed) will save you $100,000 later,” says Krick. “You want your lawyer involved from day one.”

The other must for communities is to follow through on what they communicate to their residents and potential residents. “If you’re a gated community, you’re advertising to your residents that you are providing at least some piece of security,” says Rembaum. “If the board decides they’re going to get rid of the guard and leave the gate open, that could be a liability.”

The board and management also need to ensure that they maintain the standards that they have promoted to their residents. If a security gate breaks and the board alerts the manager and it takes three days to fix, they did their duty. So if a crime occurs during those three days, then there likely will be no liability because they did what they were supposed to do, says Rembaum.

The advent of camera surveillance also helps ensure that issues of liability that do come up can be resolved quickly and accurately. Residents as well as board members and managers appreciate the cameras because they can record situations and allow them to be reviewed later for assignment of cost and responsibility.

Keeping Residents Informed

As with anything that affects the day-to-day operations of a condo or co-op community, any measures undertaken in the name of security should be shared with the residents they will affect.

First of all, new security programs, such as the hiring of an on-site security vendor or the implementation of video cameras in a public place, likely will come up for discussion and vote depending on their cost. The board will look at the expenditure in light of the community's budget. In some cases, a special assessment may be required to fully fund the initiatives. Whatever the end result everyone in the community should be made aware of security additions.

“The bylaws of the community association normally dictate the approval process required, depending on the level of expenditure,” says McMillan. “In some cases, the community association manager or a designated security committee obtains proposals from potential providers and makes a recommendation to the board for approval. In other cases, a budget may have been approved in advance for obtaining the needed equipment or service so no further approval is required.”

Too Much of a Good Thing?

With cameras and security staff on site, do residents of co-op and condo communities ever feel that their privacy is being compromised? Not too often, says Rembaum. “I think we all feel better as a society having a certain measure of security, but like with everything, there needs to be a balance.”

That is not to say that conflicts over privacy do not or cannot occur. “You would think that safety trumps everything, but there is no guarantee on how a court or arbitrator would rule” in these types of issues, says Krick. “If a resident feels that their privacy is violated, they should contact an attorney with experience in association law.”

It is also important, though, for the unit owner or residents to ask themselves if they actually were in a position where there should have been a reasonable expectation of privacy. If they were filmed in an area such as inside their own home or in a private garden, those are locations were privacy is considered a reasonable expectation, says Krick. If that privacy is violated, then there could be cause for dissatisfaction and subsequent discussion with the board or management or perhaps even legal pursuits.

Questions of privacy, however, certainly do arise when individual residents 'go rogue' and try to install their own surveillance/security measures, or if the community's rules are not adhered to strictly. For example, a resident may install a camera to watch his or her own front door, but there's likely to be trouble if they install a camera that points toward their neighbor’s living room.

In other instances, problems have surfaced when residents have discovered that board members can watch surveillance footage from their personal computers, which generates a sense of “neighbor watching neighbor” and not a legitimate monitoring system.

“As for privacy issues, securing community property and common areas is normally accepted and expected by residents,” says McMillan. “If privacy issues are a concern, the board should review the association bylaws and discuss any specific concerns with the association’s legal counsel.”

Security and privacy are often intertwined and with proper management and communication, they can co-exist not only peacefully but successfully, ensuring a happy, healthy and safe community for all.    

Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Western & Central Florida Cooperator.

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