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From the Editor 23: Board Service
from HABITAT, OCTOBER 2010
I was with my boss in her car, waiting at a stop light at 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue. A woman in a wheelchair was proceeding slowly across the street. The traffic light was blinking red and it didn’t look like she would make it across by the time the signal turned.
“Maybe you should go out and help her,” my boss said.
Dutiful liberal, I hopped out of the car and said to the woman, “Let me help you,” and started pushing her. If I expected gratitude, I was in for a long wait. “Hurry up!” she screamed shrilly at me. “Why are you going so slowly, you loser! Faster, faster, we’re not going to make it!” The verbal abuse continued until we got across the street, and, -rather than follow my gut feeling and run the crabby woman into a parked car, I consoled myself with the cliché, “Virtue is its own reward.” And, I might have added: “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Many boards must often have similar feelings. Board service is called a thankless job, but it’s really more than that: it’s a sadomasochist’s dream come true, with the board members serving as punching bags for shareholders who don’t understand what board living is all about.
It is a concern. For as abuse mounts, the volunteers dwindle, fewer new members sign on, and, as the same directors serve year in and year out, burnout increases.
Take the situation at an Amagansett cooperative. With complaints about dogs mounting, the board instituted a new policy forbidding canines outright. It may not have been the best choice – and it may not have been presented to the shareholders as diplomatically as possible – but no one expected a group of owners to take the board to court. They did, even though by suing the co-op, the owners were, in effect, suing themselves. And costing everyone time and money. But, hey, this is America, land of the lawsuit.
Then there’s the plight of another building, this one in Manhattan. The four directors (one seat was empty because of a recent resignation) dealt with all the usual problems of a small, self-managed property: staying on top of bills, balancing the budget, and keeping abreast of ever-changing city, state, and federal laws. One ongoing concern was the roof. It had been re-covered three times since the building had co-opped in the 1980s and was due for a complete overhaul. The board researched engineers, talked with contractors, and had a great deal of internal debate about how to cope with the three roof decks.
Should they be replaced? Should they be banned? If replaced, who would pay? Could the roof be insured with the decks in place? If they were removed, would the top-floor tenants, who had paid a premium to have exclusive roof rights, be reimbursed? What about the top-floor resident who had his apartment on the market? Should he be informed that he possibly might lose his roof deck? If he wasn’t, and he sold it, and then the board decided to remove the decks, would he have grounds to sue?
The board did its homework, and then consulted with its lawyer to devise what it thought was a reasonable procedure, going ahead and also reasonably explaining it to the shareholders in what it thought was a reasonable letter, sent in a timely fashion.
Reasonable response? Forget it. Just repeat: no good deed unpunished, virtue and rewards, etc. etc.
Indeed, faster than you could say, “Whip me hard and whip me good,” a top-floor resident shot off an e-mail, addressing the board members as though they were errant children who needed instruction in the fine art of running a co-op: “We would like copies of all bids pertaining to the replacement of the roof and removal of the roof decks, as we assume that you are getting at least three bids for this construction. We require reviewing all bids as an owner prior to any vote by the board.”
No “thanks for the good work you’ve done” or “can we ask…?” Just “We require…” as though the board members were paid servants and not volunteers doing the best they could to protect the property’s interests.
The president replied with a polite letter saying the board would make decisions without a vote by all the shareholders because that was what its members were elected to do. It’s called a representative democracy, he said. Not a collective. And, oh, by the way, the letter went on, there’s an empty seat on the board if you want to serve.
Serve? On the board? This time, there was no reply. Of course.