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From the Editor 36: Principle


When is it principle, and when is it a shot in your own foot?

We were talking about bonuses, and the woman with the Germanic accent couldn’t quite understand why the other members of her board wanted to cut the super’s Christmas bonus.

“It seems foolish to me,” she said, noting that they were talking about doing so because they were concerned about shaving money off the ever-tightening budget. “But is cutting $2,000 off the super’s bonus really the best way to go about that?” she asked. “I always felt that if you had a good super, you should try to keep him – and keep him happy.”

People are funny that way. By coincidence, I was later on the phone with an attorney who talked with me about a crisis a building she represented faced when an irate owner got a judge to postpone the property’s annual meeting. The owner was ticked off, you see, because the board had enforced a rule he was breaking. His revenge? Get a judge to postpone the meeting on specious grounds that would be appealed. While that was being done, the meeting had to be put off, at great expense to the co-op – and to the shareholder who brought the lawsuit. It was foolish because he was hurting himself, but hey, who thinks about such things these days? Hang the expense, full speed ahead! Ram yourself!

Then again, there are people like my Germanic interlocutor. She sounded like a no-nonsense, commonsensical person, and as the board president, she had obviously thought a lot about the various issues she faced. The big topic that we hit on was the $50,000 the board spent to get rid of a dog. But she didn’t see it that way. Spending $50,000 was about taking a principled stand; about enforcing the rules. And this just wasn’t some ego game. The board did not act unilaterally, showing off its power. Realizing that evicting the dog could cost money, it went before the shareholders, explained the situation, and got their OK to proceed.

The situation was both simple and complex. Simple because the elderly woman had a dog – a clear violation of the co-op’s rules. Complex because her son told the board that his mother had gotten the dog on doctor’s orders. She was clinically depressed, you see, and the dog cheered her up. He said the board was in the wrong.

The woman told me that the board members were suspicious. If she needed the dog so badly, why hadn’t the woman come before the board earlier and asked for an exemption to the rules? She had waited until she had been discovered before she told them about her diagnosis. When the board cracked down, the woman responded – actually, her son did – by filing a complaint with the Human Rights Commission, which opened an investigation into the case.

That’s when the board asked the shareholders whether they should fight or switch. After they obtained the owners’ approval, the directors had a doctor of their own examine the woman. He didn’t find depression; he found Alzheimer’s.

The board told the son – who apparently hadn’t known – and he withdrew his complaint. It turned out that the woman could hardly take care of herself, let alone a dog. And the board now had a concern greater than the pet: what if the woman, say, left the gas on and caused harm to herself or the property? Consulting with the son, the board worked out an agreement: she could keep the dog for six months and during that time she would either get a caregiver to assist her or move into a nursing home. Either way, the dog would be gone within six months.

“Where is justice?” asked the board president. “It was there. It was just a matter of principle.” But I think it was about more than that: it was about caring and common sense and a board that did the right thing, as both directors and as human beings.

Now if only they could get it right with the super.

• • •

I will always remember attorney Ed Braverman, who died in January, as he appeared to me when I first met him some years ago. Seeing that his colleagues were appearing frequently as sources in Habitat, he called and said he’d like to meet me for lunch. “What for?” I asked. He was amicably blunt: he had a few story ideas and he hoped to become a regular source. I subsequently met him for lunch at a busy restaurant near his office. He greeted me with a hearty handshake and a big grin. “Try the T-bone steak,” he suggested as we sat down. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do recall that his ideas were as juicy as that steak. He was a smart, affable man, and a good source of information. Although I never knew him as a friend, I was happy to have known him at all. I regret his passing.

Habitat, February 2012