Reflections on the Harborside Board of Directors Special Called Meeting (April 7, 2012)

I’ve been using this blog to share my “fun stuff” with other members of the community, and I’ll continue to do that. I’ve consciously avoided discussing HOA issues here, in an attempt to keep things light. Sometimes, though, you have to get serious – at least for a little while. The responsibility of being a member of the HOA board of directors is serious business, and there have been some misinterpretations, misinformation and mistaken assumptions flung about recently in regard to the board’s actions and motivations. It would be remiss not to address those.

This post is a long one, so please bear with me (or skip if you’re not interested – I’ll get back to the fun stuff soon). I want to try to wrap up all of my thoughts on this subject here and now, and get back to posting about travels and dogs and great restaurants and all of the good things in life, in the world, and in our community. And there is a huge amount of that.

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The board has come under fire recently and the criticisms are certainly partially our own faults, for not communicating more directly about what our thought processes have been in making various decisions, instituting changes, etc. So I’ve decided to use this blog to share my own reasons and conclusions with the membership. This goes against the advice I was given by a former PMG property manager when I first came onto the board. I was told then that I should say as little as possible – examine the documentation, ascertain the facts, consider the issues, vote as I saw fit, and not feel that I needed to explain or justify anything to the membership.

Well, that might be the “smart” way to operate, but it’s not the way I like to operate. I know I didn’t like it, before I got on the board, when every other meeting was completely closed to the homeowners and it was difficult to find out what the board was doing. I’ve tried to open up the communications during my presidency. I think it’s time to share a little more now.

The Board Appointment

The April 7 meeting was primarily for the purpose of appointing a person to fill the board vacancy left by Mark Stumbo’s resignation. In that meeting, Joe Huse said something like (paraphrasing) “to the rest of us, it appears as if the board has some agenda. It seems as if you chose the least qualified of the five candidates who applied.” So I offer here my reasons for voting for John Biernacki to fill the position. I speak only for myself, and not for anyone else on the board.

I started to answer Joe’s question at the meeting, but I was interrupted before I finished., When I said that I thought John would be the person with whom we would be able to work and get things done, someone in the audience said, “You just want your friends.” When I explained that I didn’t even know John before he applied for the board position, it changed to “You want someone who agrees with you about everything.”

That’s not true – or even possible. Nobody agrees with anyone else on everything. I’m pretty sure John and I will disagree on plenty of issues. However, based on talking to him quite a bit, I saw that he wasn’t applying for the position because he was mad about something, but because he just wanted to help. I’m not saying the other candidates don’t want to help, too. I think every one of them sincerely wants to do what he/she sincerely believes is in the best interests of the community. However, with one exception, I think the rest came forward at this time because they have an axe to grind with the current board. It’s simply hard to work with people who come into it with the attitude that we’re doing everything wrong.

One board candidate has repeatedly sent me email messages asking/demanding that I resign. I don’t think I’d have a very good working relationship with that person. Another’s spouse sent messages to a lot of other people, wanting to start a petition to remove me and another board member from the board. Again, it’s hard to work with people who don’t want to work with you. A third candidate spoke very eloquently and I was impressed – until that person’s spouse got up and showed total disrespect to our board president and made insinuations against board members but failed to elaborate on them when asked what was meant.

That left two candidates I could seriously consider voting for. John was one. Janelle was the other. I think of Janelle as a friend. She and I share an interest in dogs and rescue operations, she helped me find my current dog groomer, and we frequently exchange email about our pups. I think she is doing a great job with the ACC, getting them much more organized and clearing cases much more quickly. She and I have disagreed about one ACC issue, but I certainly don’t have any hard feelings about that and I don’t think she does, either. But her position as chair of the ACC is the reason I didn’t vote for her.

The board has agreed among ourselves that it’s best if we not have people on both the board and ACC at the same time. It presents a conflict of interest, because the board hears appeals of the ACC’s decisions. You can’t vote on an appeal of your own decision. Also, both board member and ACC member are big jobs that take a lot of time. I didn’t want to spread Janelle’s time too thin. Mark was already on both the board and ACC when the rest of us came onto the board, so we had no control over that. He thought he could handle it, but the combination ended up being too much and he ended up resigning from both because of the overload. For the record, if Janelle weren’t on the ACC, I would most likely have voted for her.

She is, so I voted for John. Thus far, that decision has proven to be a good one. He has plunged in, eager to learn and to help out in any way he can. No, he doesn’t have the past board experience of some of the other candidates, and that can be a good thing. He brings “new blood” to the HOA governance and I believe represents a “silent majority” of homeowners who haven’t been involved before. I think he’s going to do a great job and I ask those who wanted someone else appointed to give him the chance to do that.

The Treasurer Position

Some folks at the meeting were unhappy with John’s appointment because they think he’s not qualified to fill the treasurer position. Although I believe John is qualified to do that, it really has nothing to do with filling the board position. Under our ByLaws, filling those two positions are two very different processes. Here’s what the ByLaws say about board vacancies:

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Notice that this applies to the Director position – not to the Officers positions (President, Vice President, Secretary and Treasurer).

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That means the officers position is a completely separate issue from the board position. A particular board position does not “come with” treasurer duties.

It also means that any treasurer the board elected now would serve in that position only until the first regular board meeting after our annual meeting, which is traditionally held in May (but has been moved to early June this year due to the urgency of the NTTA board meeting that fell on the same date that the annual meeting would normally have taken place).

As I dug more deeply into the ByLaws, I noticed the wording in this section:

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So the president and vice president must be members of the board, but the secretary and/or treasurer can be non-board members. And that got me thinking. As a former member of a city council and once-upon-a-time a city secretary, I’m very familiar with how municipal governing bodies operate. HOAs are quasi-governmental entities. They have a governing body (the board) to make rules in much the same way a city council passes legislation. They have paid personnel (the management company) to carry out day-to-day operations in the same way city staff members do. And they have the authority to impose penalties (fines, liens, even in some cases foreclosure) in the same way the city can enforce laws through fines or arrest.

The Texas legislature passed a set of new laws last session pertaining to HOAs, most of which took effect in January of this year. Those laws were all aimed at requiring HOAs to abide by the same sort of practices and procedures that local governments have to adhere to. It makes sense, because HOAs have a similar sort of power over people’s lives. So I think it also makes sense to look to how cities handle various divisions of responsibilities.

One way in which quasi-governments differ from many corporate or social organizations is in the way certain officers are selected. City councils have presiding officers, a mayor and mayor pro tem, who are members of the council. However, their secretaries and treasurers are appointed by the council but are not members of the council. The city secretary is usually a paid, full-time employee of the city because there is a great deal involved in recording and transcribing the minutes and acting as custodian of all the city’s official records, whereas the city treasurer is often an unpaid volunteer position – although in both cases, this depends on the city’s charter.

What’s the advantage of having officers who aren’t members of the governing body? Well, the most important one is that it provides for a better system of checks and balances. Both the official records and the money are vital assets of an organization. Council/board members make the decisions regarding both, so having a different set of eyes/hands handling them reduces the chances of anything improper going on.

It also gives the secretary and/or treasurer the time required to handle his/her very important responsibility without also having to deal with all the other work involved in being a member of the council/board. That person can focus on the records or money, and thus is far less likely to let mistakes inadvertently slip through. The skills and knowledge that make a person a good board member involve “big picture,” holistic thinking. Very different skills and knowledge – involving meticulous attention to detail – are optimal for providing financial oversight.

As our community has grown and matured, and as society and the laws under which we operate as an incorporated organization have become more complex, the job of board member and the job of treasurer have gotten bigger and more time consuming. Those who wrote the ByLaws foresaw that at some point it would be a good idea to split off the secretary and/or treasurer position from the board positions, so they put in language that specifically allows it.

The Attorney Opinion

Even though the idea of a treasurer who isn’t a board member is a common practice elsewhere and is authorized by the ByLaws, other board members agreed that before we brought it for consideration at a formal meeting, we should make sure there were no state laws or rules regulating incorporated entities that would preclude it.

Some folks at the meeting were offended (the word used) that the board spent HOA money on an attorney opinion. I understand that first response, because I am likewise very opposed to spending money unnecessarily on attorney fees. That’s why, before requesting the attorney opinion, I asked Mike (PMG) to find out how much it would cost. The answer was $22.50. As I stated at the meeting, I am happy to reimburse the HOA for that expense since I was the one who brought up the issue. Since then, other board members have graciously offered to split the cost, and a check for the cost will be given to Mike at the next regular meeting next week, to be applied to that expenditure.

The Motion to Adjourn

Maintaining order in a meeting can be a difficult thing when emotions flare. Despite the board’s efforts to bring more order by setting time limits for speakers from the audience, some folks were unwilling or unable to yield the floor after the preset amount of time. When that happened, I made a motion to adjourn, which was seconded by Michael.

If you are familiar with parliamentary procedure, you probably recognized my motion to adjourn for what it was – an accepted and common tactic to regain the floor when someone has exceeded the allocated time and refuses to stop talking. Once there is a motion and second, under normal parliamentary rules, a board member can then “call the question.” This requires that all discussion stop and the Chair call for a vote. It’s important to understand that I would have then voted against actually adjourning, and then Brad would taken back the floor so the meeting could proceed in an orderly fashion and others could speak. .

Later in the meeting, an audience member stated that “If Deb had her way, the meeting would have been over.” That’s not true – although I do understand why someone who (like most people) is not experienced in the common rules of meeting procedure would have thought so. If I had actually wanted to end the meeting, I could have done so by getting up and leaving. There would have then been no quorum and, under law, the meeting would have had to end. However, that wasn’t my objective – my objective was to get control of the meeting back to the president. And that happened, even though Brad didn’t call for a vote.

The Elephants in the Room

There have been many accusations made via email, against me and others, in an effort to stir up sentiment against the current HOA board. Some of the things said are true (yes, my personal opinion is that we should allow for red-toned roofs on red brick homes, and yes, I was opposed to the rule adopted by the ACC in 2005 that prohibited homeowners on the lake side of Sunrise from having wood privacy fences like every one else in this subdivision (which our attorneys told us is invalid because it was discriminatory and was not properly filed).

Other things are half true. The board has indeed fallen behind in putting out newsletters. However, the charge that I personally caused the board to “stop communicating with residents” is not borne out by the facts. During the year that I was president (in 2010), we published two newsletters. The Spring newsletter was done in March. I wrote almost all of the content because no one else had time. I compiled it in Microsoft Pub and took it to the printer to get the copies made. I and several others walked door to door to deliver it to all 322 homes. In November, we did a Fall newsletter that Brad spent a lot of time putting together. PMG printed the copies and they were mailed with the annual dues statements.

In the first part of 2011, everyone on the board was extraordinarily busy. My business workload increased and I had some deaths and serious illnesses in my family. I stepped down from the presidency following the annual meeting due to those time constraints. We didn’t manage to publish a newsletter prior to the annual meeting, but we did send a Community Update letter out in May, with news about the pool opening, crime watch group, ACC forms, and online resources.

Prior to my presidency, board meetings were mostly closed to the non-board members. Every other meeting was executive session only. On alternate months, homeowners were allowed to attend but there was no community input time for them to speak. The first thing we did when I took over the presidency was change things so that so all board meetings were open. We went into executive session only for those items that the law allowed governments to consider in executive session (even though, until the new laws went into effect on January 1, 2012, HOA boards were not covered by an open meetings law and could legally discuss anything they wanted in executive session). We also moved the meetings from the library to the fire station, which is closer to the neighborhood. We posted notices on the web site advising of the time, regularly scheduled day and place of the monthly meetings.

The 2011 Annual Meeting

Contrary to what some have said, there was no deliberate effort to discourage participation in last year’s annual meeting. It’s true that the signs didn’t get posted. Mark had been in charge of that. He was being slammed at work at that time and his workload eventually got so heavy that he resigned from the board. We had discussed having someone else handle the signs, but they were still with him, and didn’t get put out. We did send out the meeting notice, which was mailed to every household. I also put notice of the meeting on the web site, as well as in my “Message from the President,” which I published on the web every month specifically to keep residents “in the loop” and try to open up more communication.

The Web Site

When I came on the board in late 2009, we had no functional web site. Some of the folks already on the board knew I hosted my own sites and asked if I would do one for the HOA. I registered the domain, did the administrative work, set up the site on my server, did the graphics design and wrote all the content for over a year. It was a volunteer effort, and when my “real work” workload increased, I fell behind in updating some of the content. Instead of discussing it with me, one homeowner placed a surprise item on the agenda and wrote a mini manifesto listing everything he believed was wrong with the site, and passed it out to the board at a meeting.

Subsequently the board decided to have PMG host the HOA site, on the premise that it would be kept more updated and there would be more homeowner participation. It makes sense that people who are getting paid to do it would have more time to keep it current, although I’ve noticed the same sort of problems (e.g., notices of meetings not taken down until weeks after the meeting). That just seems to happen with web sites, regardless of who’s maintaining them. Thus far only three people have participated in the discussion boards on the new site (me, my husband and Michael Gallops). I’m the only one who has posted pictures of the neighborhood to the Photo Gallery. It’s just difficult to get a lot of participation in traditional web venues these days. Social media has taken over that role to a large degree (and I’ll talk about that shortly).

I’m happy to have one less job to do, but I believe the complaints regarding the site I was hosting were overblown and the matter was handled in a way not conducive to a harmonious working relationship.

The Blogs

The second “agenda ambush” occurred a few months later, regarding the Harborside Community Blog I had established at http://harborsidehoa.wordpress.com. I work with online resources on a daily basis, and I get input from literally tens of thousands of users who read my tech newsletters and blogs. From that input, I know there will always be some people in any group who don’t want to have to log onto a web site, providing their email addresses or user names, to get information. I wanted to keep the blog active after the PMG site was set up, for those people.

The agenda item to discuss the “blog purpose” was placed on the February agenda late, and I didn’t know it was there until the day of the meeting. Once again, I’d been given no clue what it was about in order to prepare for the discussion. When our current PMG representative had sent out the original February agenda to the board members, I had posted it on the blog site. That agenda didn’t include the “blog purpose” item.

I was accused of having “deleted” the item on the agenda I posted. I don’t like to admit this, but the accusation made me very angry, and I lost my temper in that meeting. I adamantly wish I hadn’t, but I did, and I raised my voice when I should have refuted the accusation quietly and calmly.

Our PMG rep spoke up in that meeting and verified I didn’t delete anything, that it was the version of the agenda that he had first sent me. However, the accusation that I deleted an agenda item has continued to persist. I had decided to try not to get into arguments with people who seemed to be just trying to provoke me to anger, so I said nothing more about it until now. But others who hear it have no way of knowing the real story, unless I tell it. That’s why I’m addressing it here, in an open forum.

After that complaint about the blog, I stopped posting HOA related items there. I thought I’d try to provide some more upbeat content to share with my neighbors, so I wrote about my travels and my dogs. I got a lot of positive feedback – but there were still a few who were upset about my “inappropriate” use of the HOA name. I had taken “HOA” off the site name, but it couldn’t be removed from the URL.

So I then spent hours removing the content from the site and created a new site that didn’t say “HOA” anywhere, then reposting all my posts and pictures to it and creating pointers on the old site to it and to the official PMG site. This is that new site. It’s my site and it’s about my life and experiences living in the Harborside community. It is not operated by the HOA or the board. However, the HOA and board membership are part of my life, so those topics will occasionally (and only very occasionally) be a part of this blog.

Social Media/The Facebook Page

In early 2010, one of the ways I tried to encourage more communication within the community was by utilizing social media tools. I created a Twitter account (harborsidehoa) and a Facebook group page (Harborside HOA). These, too, engendered criticism from the same person who didn’t like the HOA web site I hosted or the blog. I stopped using the Twitter account, and I renamed the Facebook page, making it clear that the site is “unofficial” and taking the “HOA” name out of its title.

The Facebook group has been active for almost two years and there are currently 77 members, and we have some good discussions. During the storms on April 3rd that spawned so many tornados in the area, many of us kept each other updated about the weather through those group posts (while hunkered in our closets or bathrooms with our laptops after being warned to take shelter).

We’ve also shared information about suspicious vehicles in the neighborhood, encouraged people to attend city-sponsored meetings and give input on planned development nearby, disseminated information on NTTA-related issues, and more. The group has been a great resource for those who choose to use it. It’s an excellent way to get to know your neighbors a little better. I know some disagree, but I believe the more communications channels we have available, the better.

Where We are Now and How We Got Here

Something I would like you to keep in mind is that this board did not swoop in and “take over” or “elect ourselves” as some seem to think. Some of us were originally appointed by a past board president, who found himself with vacancies when members left. Two of us were then reelected by the membership last year, with no one choosing to run against us (even though everyone in the neighborhood received a form in the mail to sign up as a candidate if interested). Some of the people who currently disagree with our decision to not appoint them to the board had been asked previously, by me, to please consider running for board, and said they didn’t have the time (which I totally understood and respected).

Brad took over as president at our first board meeting after the annual meeting in 2011 (thus saving my sanity – for which I’m very gratefulclip_image004). He was in almost the same situation that I was in when I accepted the position of president: new on the board, with no previous experience with HOA procedures, reluctantly taking it on because nobody else wanted it. I think he’s done a great job. However, there was a learning curve, for me and then for him.

In 2010, our entire board was comprised of brand new people. In some ways, that was good because it meant we explored all the options and weren’t burdened by the “this is the way we’ve always done it” mentality. But it also meant we did some things differently from previous boards. Some disagree with those new ways of doing things. That’s to be expected.

Times change. New people have new ideas. Some are great and improve on the old; some don’t work out so well. Some changes are forced on us by new laws and new circumstances. For instance, the city’s water restrictions rules prevented us from planting flowers when we otherwise would have. That resulted in charges that we were letting the entrances go downhill.

The neighborhood is aging. Both the common areas and the homes are near that twenty year mark when buildings and infrastructure components start to really show their age. Things aren’t as new and shiny as they were when some folks were on the board. We’ve also been in a prolonged economic downturn that has severely impacted some members of our community. They can’t afford to keep their yards and houses quite as spiffy as they might have in the past. When someone is unemployed and trying to make the mortgage payment and feed the family, the cost of getting weed treatments or having the chimney painted just isn’t a high priority.

This board has tried very hard to balance the desire for the neighborhood to look nice with human compassion and understanding, and respect for individual property rights. I believe, and I think my fellow board members agree, that a community is more about people than about things. We’ve put in a lot of time getting facts about specific cases and considering alternatives before we make decisions that can have a profound effect on people’s lives. That has led some to criticize us for being “soft.” Then there are others in the community who think we’re much too “strict.” Bottom line: You can’t please everybody, so you have to do what you believe is right.

About Me

When I became president, because we were all new to this, I was perhaps too dependent on the PMG rep (who is not our current PMG rep) to guide us in the proper way to do things. She had many years of experience managing HOAs. Some of her advice was good. Some was less so – such as when she told me that the board should maintain final control of such decisions as what flowers to plant in the common areas because the committees were supposed to be purely advisory. Technically, that’s true. The buck stops with the board, so if there is some compelling reason to overrule a committee’s decision, it’s our job to do that. However, I know that in trying to do things as our PMG rep advised, we unnecessarily made the landscape committee members feel unappreciated and unempowered. And as the president, and thus the one who spoke for the board on the matter, I came across to them as personally wanting to take away their responsibilities. I regret that and I would handle it very differently today.

I know a few people now dislike me personally. In some cases, it’s because of things like that. In other cases, it’s because of fundamental differences of opinion regarding the level of control an HOA should have over individual properties. In a couple of cases, there seems to be a personality conflict; they just don’t like me for reasons I can’t pretend to understand. That happens sometimes, among relatives, co-workers, classmates, and within any other large groups of people.

When you don’t like someone, it’s easy to fall into the habit of making assumptions about that person, seeing the things they do or say in the worst possible light. That’s what happened with the posting of the February agenda on the blog, discussed above. Because the item was missing from the agenda I’d posted, the assumption was made that I intentionally changed the agenda.

There have been cases where I’ve made erroneous assumptions of my own. There were some homeowners I assumed to be hostile because they had been with others who demonstrated hostility at recent meetings. I’ve since had some great discussions with many of them and discovered they were really interested in hearing both sides of the recent issues. After talking to me, I think they realized that I really am trying to look out for the interests of the neighborhood. .We have many, many wonderful people in this community and I’ve made many new friends over the last few months. I know from lifelong experience that some folks won’t like me, and that’s okay. . In my heart, I know that the majority (and perhaps it’s a silent majority) thinks, believes and feels that our community members need to work in harmony and support each other and reach compromise solutions when we disagree.

Going Forward

Feelings run high when people care deeply, and it’s obvious that people on all sides of the recent disagreements care deeply about our neighborhood and what goes on in it. That’s a good thing. Our current HOA board has been a great group to work with. Sure, we’ve disagreed on issues, but we’ve always been able to work through those disagreements and we respect each other and have become friends in the process.

The Harborside HOA board welcomes involvement! But like anyone else, when we feel as if we’re being attacked, we might get a little defensive. That’s just human nature. But we recognize that we’re all in this together, board member or not. I have loved my home and living here for almost eight years now. It’s one of the most beautiful locations in the DFW metroplex and I know how blessed we are to have something so special. I want to continue enjoying this home, and this community and its people, for many years to come.

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DEBRA LITTLEJOHN SHINDER

About debshinder

Technology analyst and author, specializing in enterprise security. Author of or contributor to over 25 books, including "Scene of the Cybercrime." Fourteen-year Microsoft MVP, married to Microsoft FTE Tom Shinder, and proud mom of two wonderful grown-up human children and three amazing Japanese Chin pups. In my spare time, I love to travel - especially on cruise ships - and write about my grand adventures.
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