By Sherri Hall
Although not required in every state, many community associations choose to have homeowner forums, or member question and answer (Q&A) sessions, in addition to or as part of their open board meetings. Such a forum is usually held either at the end of an open board meeting or in a separate meeting specifically scheduled to allow homeowners to ask questions or raise concerns regarding community matters.
According to Denise Becker, PCAM, Regional Manager with Corner Property Management in Springfield, New Jersey, even though homeowner forums are not required by law in New Jersey, she highly recommends holding them. She said that since the members of the association pay their maintenance fees, they are entitled to information regarding the administration of the association, and, as such, they should have an opportunity to ask questions or voice their concerns directly to the Board.
A benefit to having a homeowner forum is that the owners can ask questions that they feel may not have been covered during the board’s discussion, such as timing and funding of community projects. For example, if there is a parking lot paving project going on in the community and an association member is going to be on vacation, they may have concerns about where to park their cars while they are away and can bring this to the board’s or management’s attention at the homeowner forum. “They want to know how their money is going to be spent and how the project is going to affect them, such as where to park or if they have to be home,” said Becker. Other concerns members may bring up at a homeowner forum include requests they have made and work orders they have submitted, she added.
When holding a homeowner forum, the board should set some ground rules in order to keep everything under control. “First, send out a clear agenda to everyone ahead of time so they know what will be discussed at the meeting. Then, at the end of the meeting, allow a portion to be set aside for the homeowner forum for questions and answers,” suggested Becker.
In small groups or intimate settings, the homeowner forum can be run in a conversational style — however, this may not work with larger audiences. To keep the homeowner forum structured when there is a large audience, members can be asked to put their questions in writing prior to the meeting, so that the board and management have an idea of what the questions are going to be, explained Becker. Therefore, if any research is required, there will be ample time for the manager or board to have a suitable response at the meeting.
Another suggestion is to have a time limit on homeowner comments where each person gets to speak for a certain period of time, such as three minutes. “This works well with larger groups, especially if it looks like something is getting contentious,” Becker noted.
The members who were on the agenda can be given the right to speak first and, if there is time left, others may be given an opportunity to address their concerns as well. Additionally, those who submitted their questions or concerns ahead of time should be allowed to speak without interruption from other members, a quick reminder at the beginning of the session will help move this process along. “After a while, residents will get used to the way the board is running their meetings,” said Becker.
Even with a set of rules some people may tend to forget the structure and become unruly. In that case, Becker said the board can adjourn the meeting and announce the homeowner forum is over. Or, if it is only one owner who is not following the meeting decorum, the board can kindly ask that person to leave and invite them to come back when they can properly conduct themselves, she added. The board can also invite the homeowner to make an appointment to meet privately in an executive session to discuss this person’s concerns.
“Board meetings are where the board has to conduct the business of the association in front of the owners, so that there’s transparency and owners can see what the board is working on,” Becker explained. “However, it’s not an open participation session. The homeowners aren’t there to participate in the decision making, but to learn information. Therefore, the homeowner forum session is held for the purpose of asking questions regarding what the board is working on amongst the members present.”
Many times, once the meeting is adjourned, board members can choose to have a conversation with homeowners following the meeting, but nothing will be on the record and nothing can be acted on. Once the meeting is adjourned, the clock stops. “No decisions can be made outside of a meeting that has been officially closed,” said Becker, although most boards will ask if there are any other concerns before adjourning the meeting, she noted.
If the meeting must end at a specific time, such as if it is held in a facility that closes at a certain time, the board can announce that the group will reconvene at the next meeting and to put any concerns in writing to be addressed at the next meeting. However, if someone comes up later and says they weren’t on the agenda but just want to let the board know their roof is leaking, the board of course, is not going to tell that person to come back at the next meeting, but instead suggest they let the property manager know so that it can be handled in a timely manner.
Homeowner forums offer a chance for the members to ask questions, though there are some questions the board should not answer. “I would recommend not answering anything that pertains to their homeowner maintenance account,” suggested Becker. She added that in this case, the board can invite the homeowner to an executive session to discuss the matter privately or see if the property manager is able to work out the issue with the accounting department.
Additionally, the board should not discuss specific violations or non-compliance issues, Becker noted. The board can make a general statement such as residents are not cleaning up after their dogs, but they cannot point out anyone specifically.
The board should also not discuss anything to do with a specific homeowner’s delinquency. They can mention the total dollar amount of delinquencies but not who they are attributed to. The board should also steer clear of discussing the specifics of lawsuits, especially those that are pending, added Becker.
According to Becker, the key to a successful homeowner forum is effective communication. When the board and property manager continually provide necessary information to the homeowners, they will have less and less questions and concerns. If there is an ongoing project in the community, it’s important to give the homeowners information constantly throughout the process. There will be a lot of questions at the beginning of the project, which is why Becker suggested holding a separate town hall style meeting with those involved in attendance, such as the engineer, contractor, attorney, etc. That way, they can give a presentation of the project and homeowners can freely ask questions of them. “This can help regular board meetings to stay on track and allow the board to stick to their agenda”, said Becker.