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Talking With a Board President
In his real world job, Barry Klitsberg is called an Aging Services Program Specialist, which means he deals with the problems of aging Americans as a bureaucrat for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In his other – perhaps more taxing – volunteer job, he has served as the president of the 12-building Quality and Ruskin Apartments Corp. in Forest Hills for over a decade. It is a role he jokingly describes as “a kind of purgatory.” The TK-unit complex he supervises – consisting of, in Klitsberg’s words, “working folks” – was constructed between 1948 and 1950; it went co-op in TK. Klitsberg joined the seven-member board in 2000 and became president in 2001. Habitat’s Tom Soter sat down with him recently to discuss life in the co-op lane.
Have you always had an interest in serving on the board?
K: After the first couple of years of living here, I thought that it might be a smart idea, and I had some suggestions, and the existing board at the time had a vacancy. So, they asked me to sit on the board.
What were the ideas you had?
K: Storage lockers in the buildings, for one thing. There are a lot of people living here and we found they didn’t have space in the building. So I came up with the suggestion that would alleviate that, and in addition, raise some money.
That seems like a very practical idea; did anything in your professional experience prepare you for your work on the board?
K: My professional experience is with the federal government at the Department of Health and Human Services. We deal with programs for seniors. We fund them so the states of local governments can provide services. We pay for a lot of the services. We make sure that the states and local governments are in compliance with the Older Americans Act. We provide assistance to states with their policy issues. We monitor their performance. The positive side of that, as far as the co-op is concerned, is that I am familiar with “people work” and how to negotiate my way through the mounds of paper and we have to deal with.
What are your strengths as a board member as you see it?
K: I am very persistent. I pay attention to detail.
Give me an example of that.
K: A number of years ago, we needed to purchase new boilers. We have 12 buildings; we needed 12 boilers. Our building is managed by Argo, and they also sit on the board as the sponsor. There is another Argo co-op in the neighborhood that had eight buildings, and they also were in a similar situation. So we combined our purchase with theirs, and we did a purchase for 20 boilers. We were able to save a bit of money by doing a larger purchase.
What do regard as highly desirable qualities in a board member?
K: There should be a certain amount of commitment, meaning they come to board meetings; that they look at the materials we are discussing in advance, so they are familiar with any issues that we have to deal with.
Do they do that?
K: Most of the time.
What are some of the least desirable traits in a board member?
K: They don’t show up at board meetings, or they come and they are very late. They are not prepared at all, or they might have their own agenda. They might be focused on one particular item or one particular building in the development, and we have got 12. So I have to make sure that we all focus on not just the individual building we live in but the entire property.
Empathy is a tricky business for board member. You have to care about the people at the same time making very hard choices for the corporation. How do you handle it?
K: I talk to people. I explain that whenever I do something, it’s not because of a whim; it’s because I always have a reason for what I do, and it’s usually the safety or the infrastructure of the buildings or the grounds to make them more appealing, but certainly never for whimsical reasons. Even if they don’t agree, they at least understand where you’re coming from. So once I do that, they tend to buy into your project.
Were you in any sort of leadership role as a child?
K: No. I was an average kid. I just wanted to play ball and look at girls.
Where did you grow up?
K: In Queens, in Long Island City in a housing project for a while and then other areas of Queens.
What you do in your spare time?
K: I like to read a lot, Mostly nonfiction, historical books, biographies. Right now, I am reading a book about Jesus Christ called The Zealot. It talks about Jesus not as the religious icon, but as the actual person behind the religious aspect that him being – they called “a bandit” back then, but that was the term they used for a revolutionary. Before that, I read a book about Roosevelt and Churchill which was just a fascinating study of the two characters and how they worked with each other for their own needs which became mutual ends, which was obviously the war.
What drives you?
K: I want to provide a good life for my family – my wife and daughter – and make sure they have a comfortable lifestyle, meaning that the building and our residents are kept in good shape. Their happiness and health is paramount to me.
What are some of the major challenges you have had as a board leader in the building?
K: Sometimes getting things done is, I wouldn’t say tedious but time-consuming, and it takes a long time to finish projects, or even to get them started – to go through all the bids from the vendors and the specifications. Sometimes I don’t have the patience for all that. So that’s one of the things that drives me because I want these things done yesterday. And sometimes getting contract signed and getting the lowest bid takes a while because you have to go through the procurement process and the paperwork, and that could be frustrating.
How do you keep going when it gets so frustrating?
K (laughing): I yell at people on the board or mostly the property manager. I don’t yell at the board really; I yell at the property manager. He knows when I am calling that something is up or something is not being done the way I expected.
When would you be ready to call a quit and say, “I can step down”?
K: I don’t know when I will quit. I think I might when other people who are on the board show an interest in being president. Most of them are very happy with me – they don’t want to have people coming up to them in the street complaining about a particular thing in their building. So they are very happy to let me do that. And I am willing to keep doing it as long as I think that I am helping to keep the buildings in good shape.
Do you have a favorite saying or expression?
K: I have quite a few. They are not original. Kennedy’s “Don’t get mad, get even,” and Lincoln’s “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” I like those.
Finally, how would you describe yourself in one or two words?
Habitat, January 4, 2014